Watchdog: Agencies Need More Guidance Before They Can Implement DATA Act

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"Agencies run the risk of reporting data that cannot be aggregated governmentwide," according to GAO.

Federal agencies can’t make spending data more transparent under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act until they get more guidance on how to do it, a watchdog report says.

The 2014 DATA Act directs the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department to standardize federal spending data and make it more searchable. While those two agencies have established standards so other agencies can report their spending, several of the definitions for financial elements that must be disclosed could be interpreted in various ways, potentially leading to “inconsistent reporting,” the new report found.

Without clarification, “agencies run the risk of reporting data that cannot be aggregated governmentwide,” the report said.

GAO recommended OMB and Treasury issue clarification to agencies, and then release technical guidelines so agencies can meet timelines for implementing the DATA Act. OMB and Treasury were required to create standards by May 2015.

Agencies are to report spending data by May 2017 and publicly post that data in a machine-readable format by May 2018. Both OMB and Treasury generally agreed with the recommendations, the report said.

GAO’s analysis found the 57 definitions compiled by OMB and Treasury for data elements -- which included terms such as “outlay,” “program activity,” and “unobligated balance” -- met basic best practices such as “avoiding circular reasoning” or “stat[ing] what the concept is, not only what it is not.”

Thirty-eight of the 57 were found to be “sufficiently precise and unambiguous.”

When faced with vague definitions, agencies were reporting them in varied terms, GAO found. For instance, the definition of "Award Description" was “a brief description of the purpose of the award,” and some agencies were using shorthand or acronyms to report that element.

In a 2010 report, GAO found the description for one contract read “4506135384!DUMMY LOA." Records showed the award was for purchasing metal pipes. Another award description reading “Cont Renewals All Types" was for an apartment building.

“This lack of basic clarity would make the data element difficult for others outside the agency to understand and would also limit the ability to meaningfully aggregate or compare this data across the federal government,” GAO said in the report.

According to GAO, which conducted the audit between May 2015 and January 2016, a senior Department of Health and Human Services official told OMB and Treasury that without guidance about the “policy, process and technology changes that accompany the data element definitions,” agencies can't effectively make implementation plans.

In a Jan. 29 letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee requested OMB and Treasury report their progress in implementing GAO’s recommendations to Congress.

“Without the timely issuance of final guidance, federal agencies may not have the information needed” to implement DATA Act standards by the deadline, lawmakers wrote.

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