DATA Act’s ‘gentle transition’ offers agencies option to dive in, dip toe in data

The DATA Act’s May implementation deadline was “just the beginning” for federal agencies standardizing their spending reports, but for the Homeland Security Department, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act was more of a springboard than a starting line.

Speaking at an Association of Government Accountants event in Washington, Frank Brizzi, director of resource management transformation at DHS’ Office of the CFO, called the DATA Act “our beachhead.”

“It was our first phase of a much larger data management effort,” Brizzi said. “So the DATA Act just kind of primed the pump. We got out of the gate a little bit faster than we intended. It’s great, the next phase of our data management approach is to go after unified investment data. We want to see a unified view of capital investments across the department. That’s huge. That’s accounting-line level data that we’re going to be collecting. We’ll bring that into a data warehouse, and we’ll connect it with other data such as DATA Act, we’ll connect it with tier submission data, we’re going to connect it with our budget formulation data, we’re going to connect it in any way possible, and allow the analysts to come in and pull the data how they need it. It’s revolutionary for us. Without a single financial system, we have no single repository for financial data and that’s what we’re embarking on, and this is DATA Act pushing that effort forward.”

Brizzi’s comments come just as the Data Foundation is hosting Data Transparency 2017, the fifth annual open-data event in Washington, D.C. The event includes panels on the future of government data, transforming grant compliance, and modernizing government management with data.

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“The only way that we can be successful in the midst of a modernization effort is to bring consolidated and standardized data together for reporting purposes, the only way we’re going to be successful in meeting that vision in the midst of 15 component organizations with multiple financial systems,” Brizzi said. “So this is the approach that we took, and at first, when the DATA Act came out, we were looking at it like, ‘really?’ and then we actually used it to propel us forward in our endeavor to consolidate and standardize data.”

David Horn, director of the Office of Financial Policy and Reporting at the Health and Human Services Department, said similar to DHS, his agency is a “confederation of many entities.”

“So until the DATA Act, standardization really wasn’t needed, we let everybody do it their way,” Horn said. “Well that’s not working out so good now, so we’re heading toward standardization, but you’ve got to crawl before you can walk.”

Horn said when it came to DATA Act implementation, HHS wrestled with everything from shrinking object class numbers within its accounting systems, to identifying non-matching transactions.

“The scary thing is now I think my team knows more about the data than the people that put it in,” Horn said. “It’s pretty cool and I’m very proud to be part of it. We’re looking forward to when the system actually does the linkage and we don’t have to do all that manual work, but the reconciliations will never go away. We’ll probably always do them, probably build them in a building intelligence model but that will give us time to go back and fix things, and keep our fluid control environment fluid.

Looking ahead

The DATA Act’s goal is to standardize federal spending data governmentwide. The Treasury Department rolled out on May 9 the beta version of USASpending.gov. The site is in the prototype phase, but according to the current USASpending site, a new version will be released in the fall.

“The new site will continue to provide data on federal awards as well as include data on agency expenditures,” the site stated.

Justin Marsico, a senior policy analyst at the Treasury Department, said the regular “legacy site” is updated and current, and what his team has found looking through the site’s analytics is that most users are still going to the older version.

“We think of the power users as being people who are going and getting the data, ripping it out and doing analysis,” Marsico said. “Those people are all still on the legacy site. I think part of the reason is that for the last several months, there’s only been one-quarter’s worth of data on there, now we have two-quarters’ worth and we’re starting to see there be a little bit more activity. We’ve tried to make it a gentle transition for the people who rely on the data.”

Marsico said his team is also getting the opportunity to flex the DATA Act’s capability for creating linkages between spending data and other data sets.

One example is by linking data from FedScope, which is information like average federal employee salary, location, and occupation codes.

“We thought this is something we could match to our DATA Act data, because we could drill into personnel compensation within the DATA Act and then roll up all of the average salaries for agencies from the FedScope data and see if we could make a match, and we were able to make a match,” Marsico said. “We were surprised by the level of data quality that we found. We looked both governmentwide at the 24 CFO Act agencies, and then agency by agency, and found a pretty good match between what the average salary roll-up was in OPM’s data and what was reported through the DATA Act.”

Marsico said Treasury is set to launch an “alpha” version of this linkage on its GitHub page on Sept. 26 and is looking for feedback.