Implementation deadline ‘just the beginning’ for DATA Act

With six months until the deadline for full implementation of the the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, agency heads are taking a realistic — but confident — approach to their work as the deadline looms.

During a Dec. 8  House Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing, Treasury Fiscal Assistant Secretary David Lebryk told members that while much attention has been paid to the May deadline, “I think it is important to note that May is just the beginning.”

“The data will not be flawless or fully complete in May — since this is the first time this data has been collected and linked,” Lebryk said.

But that’s not to say Treasury nor the Office of Management and Budget, the two agencies leading the implementation, aren’t working toward meeting that deadline, even with some bumps in the road.

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A new report from the Government Accountability Office found that 19 of the 24 CFO Act agencies continue to have trouble in implementing the DATA Act because of four main challenges: systems integration, a lack of resources, evolving and more complex reporting requirements and a lack of guidance.

Paula Rascona, director of financial management and assurance issues at the GAO, told subcommittee members her office had received the Defense Department’s Inspector General report on DATA Act readiness, and Defense planned on requesting an extension — the first of three 6-month extensions allowed — though she had not seen the letter.

OMB Controller Dave Mader told the subcommittee he’d also heard a letter had been drafted but he had not received a formal request.

Another hiccup in the implementation relates to the law’s requirement for a two-part pilot that covers federal grants and federal contracts [or procurements].

The Department of Health and Human Services is handling the grant side, according to an earlier GAO report, while the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) is leading the procurement side with the help of GSA’s 18F.

According to GAO’s report, OMB worked with HHS and GSA to redesign parts of the pilot.

While the revisions do help, GAO reported, the procurement plan “does not clearly describe and document how findings related to centralized certified payroll reporting will be more broadly applicable to the many other types of required procurement reporting.”

And because payroll data includes personally identifiable information (PII), a decision was made to strengthen the cybersecurity of the pilot to protect it. GSA expects to start collecting data in late January or late February.

That’s “particularly troubling,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), “given the effects it will have on the federal contracting industry.”

Mader testified that when the tool was being developed, “we identified some concerns around the robustness of the cybersecurity aspect of that system and we’ve had to actually restart that process.”

Despite the setback, OMB plans on issuing a report in August 2017 on the procurement pilot and collecting a year’s worth of data.

GAO also made a new recommendation to OMB for the procurement portion of the pilot, to better reflect leading practices by “more clearly documenting this linkage,” Rascona said.

Progress needs to be preserved

In November OMB released a memo detailing personally identifiable information and data “validity.”

“Although OMB has made some progress with these efforts, other data definitions lack clarity which still needs to be addressed to ensure that agencies report consistent and comparable data,” the GAO reported stated.

On Sept. 30, Treasury updated its broker system.

The broker system will:

  • Check that submitted data follows a standardized format that will allow for aggregation and comparison across government.
  • Validate selected data elements to ensure that the data are accurate.

The department released an early version of the broker in April 2016, followed by a beta version in June.

GAO reported agencies are testing their data submissions, but agencies had developed interim solutions while Treasury updates its systems, which in some cases rely on manual processing that can increase the risk for mistakes.

Other steps OMB and Treasury have taken toward implementation of the DATA Act include the establishment of a Data Standards Committee, to maintain the current standards and pursue new elements or definitions.

“Although this represents progress in responding to GAO’s prior recommendation, more remains to be done to establish a data governance structure that is consistent with leading practices to ensure the integrity of data standards over time,” the GAO report stated.

Some data governance models already exist, GAO said, and that could help with the promotion of a common set of practices for setting and enforcing data standards.

“A robust, institutionalized data governance structure is important to provide consistent data management during times of change and transition,” GAO reported. “The transition to a new administration presents risks to implementing the DATA Act, including potential shifted priorities or loss of moment. The lack of a robust and institutionalized data governance structure for managing efforts going forward presents additional risks regarding the ability of agencies to meet their statutory deadlines in the event that priorities shift over time.”

That transition concern was echoed by subcommittee members who issued their own warnings to the incoming administration.

“Elections have consequences,” Connolly said. “But the new administration must not impair full implementation of the DATA Act.  It is critical that the next administration make implementation of the DATA Act a priority, and that Congress follows through with a bipartisan commitment to oversight and funding.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, asked the witnesses for information on who to reach out to in the next congressional session.

“I need your contacts on implementing all of this throughout all of the agencies.” Meadows said. “Who we need to go through in terms of making sure that we don’t lose any progress on this, throughout all the agencies.”