IG Calls Out Homeland Security for ‘Questionable’ Spending Data

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Auditors said more than 60 percent of transactions had errors, but Homeland Security officials disagree.

Homeland Security Department officials are pushing back against a report that highlighted the agency’s failure to meet federal requirements for open data, claiming the investigators’ analysis was too restrictive.

The Homeland Security Inspector General reported that nearly 64 percent of the transactions DHS published under new federal open data legislation contained inaccurate information. More than $1.9 billion in spending—roughly 22 percent of total transactions—also couldn’t be linked to corresponding contracts through identification numbers, according to the IG.

The report examined Homeland Security spending data from the second quarter of fiscal 2017, the first batch of information submitted under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. Passed in 2014, the legislation aims to shed light on government spending by requiring agencies to upload quarterly financial data in a common data structure to USASpending.gov.

“Until DHS strengthens its existing controls and applies additional controls over its DATA Act processes, the quality and transparency of its published spending data remains questionable,” auditors wrote. The report fulfills a federal requirement that IGs of all CFO agencies audit DATA Act procedures for the first quarter of the program.

Though Homeland Security officials agreed with most of the IG recommendations for bolstering data management controls, they pushed back against the process auditors used to align transaction data with specific contracts. Officials argued the methodology didn’t provide adequate time to process transactions through the system and didn’t give enough wiggle room for rounding errors.

Homeland Security officials also argued the IG methodology inflated the actual amount of inaccurate information in the data set. Each transaction entry contains a number of attributes, including contract values, contractor names and unique identification number.s Auditors labeled the entire transaction invalid if any single data point was wrong, but Homeland Security said that only 18 percent of the total attributes were inaccurate.

Considering that only the first submission to USASpending.gov was examined, the IG's criteria could be considered overly restrictive, said Jessica Yabsley, a spokeswoman for the Data Coalition, an open data advocacy organization. Homeland Security is still “ironing out the kinks” of the program, she said, so the issues highlighted in the report should be seen more as growing pains than a cause for alarm.

“This is the first time they’ve had to do this and it’s a huge undertaking,” Yabsley told Nextgov. “We’re definitely not surprised by some of the issues the IG flagged.”

It’s difficult to extrapolate reports on submissions for single quarter to assess the state of the overall program, she said. The next round of audits is scheduled for November 2018 and will include over a year of financial data.