Agencies Under the Gun to Meet Data Transparency Deadlines

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Obama administration has six months to prove its implementation of a sweeping new data transparency law is on track.

The Obama administration has six months to prove its implementation of a sweeping new data transparency law is on track.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department have until May 2015 to finish hammering out common standards for agencies to identify and track federal financial data as required by the Digital Accountability and and Transparency -- or DATA -- Act.

Lawmakers and congressional auditors say they’re closely tracking agencies’ progress.

"If that deadline slips, it's a real problem, because if that one slips, then other implementation deadlines will also slip. And I think all bets are off as to when we'll fully realize the full promise of the DATA Act,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of the architects of the Senate version of the bill, who appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday.

The end goal of the DATA Act is to provide nearly all federal spending data in a single, searchable online database.

This "new and enhanced" -- in the words of David Mader, OMB’s controller -- "will become the authoritative source for basic information of how agencies budget, obligate and outlay their funds and how those dollars are ultimately disseminated through federal contracts, grants and other forms of expenditures."

Advocates of the law, such as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., say the DATA Act, when fully realized, would provide near real-time visibility into federal dollars as they’re being spent by agencies, "startlingly improving our ability to go after waste, fraud and abuse," he said.

That vision won’t be fully implemented until 2018.

But administration officials acknowledge they’re already running up against steep deadlines in the meantime.

Coming up with common standards and getting agencies to collect and report their data through the new USASpending site “within the aggressive time frames of the act will be no small feat and one that will take several years and additional resources," Mader testified before the committee.

And that’s one of the problems identified by lawmakers: The law didn’t provide much in the way of funding to help agencies implement its provisions. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the costs to agencies would run up a total price tag of about $300 million -- or about $2 million to $3 million per agency.

“Agencies are going to throw up their hands and they're going to say, 'Look, this is complicated. We don't have the money. We don't have the staff,’” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

She added, “There is very little incentive for an agency to dip into its already cut budget and begin anew on a brand-new unprecedented project."

Right now, Mader said the project is still in the “intellectual” phase, largely consisting of meeting with stakeholders and coming up with standard data definitions.  

“So, we're really not in the technology [phase] and moving data around,” he said. “We're just getting a clear definition of a core group of terms so that whether you're dealing with an acquisition or whether you're dealing with a grant, 'place of business' means the same."

But the project is due to ramp up.

“We're going to quickly move in the springtime into more detailed work across the breadth of the agencies and therein lies the challenge that there is a sort of unfunded mandate for them to do that,” Mader said.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said keeping track of the project is also a high priority for the Government Accountability Office.

The legislation only calls on GAO to issue its first report on DATA Act implementation by 2017. “But you can look for a report from us next year,” he told the committee. “We're going to track every stage of the implementation over the period of time, not just look at the after-the-fact reports.”

That could help identify problems, such as inconsistency in the standards or other data quality concerns, before they become entrenched.

Data quality has been a lingering concern when it comes to transparency of federal financial data.

A GAO review earlier this year found gaps in agencies’ reporting on the portal, which currently tracks agency spending on grants and contracts. All told, agencies failed to record a total of 324 programs in the database, totaling some $619 billion.

That remains a concern with the upgraded USASpending site envisioned by the DATA Act.

The big question "that should concern all of us is the issue of whether information going into this system is complete," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member. "Because without good information, we might as well go home."