Confusion over data standards, process and transparency remain.
Since 2014, federal agencies have been under Congressional mandate to publicly report data on all spending—on contracts, staff, operations, grants and more—which is then published on USASpending.gov for all to see. The road to getting accurate, legible data published has been a long one, but agencies made significant progress in 2018, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, passed in 2014, followed by official data standards and guidance from the Treasury Department and Office of Management and Budget in 2016. The goal was to create a single standard for reporting federal spending data that could then be posted publicly and displayed in easy-to-understand visuals. Congress also expected the data standardization to enable one-to-one comparison between agencies.
As part of the law, GAO and the various inspectors general were tasked with producing three progress reports—one in 2017, one in 2019 and a final report in 2021. The oversight agency released the second roundup assessment Friday.
Per the report, at the end of fiscal 2018, 96 agencies submitted spending data to USASpending.gov. GAO reviewed all of these submissions and found “improvements in overall data quality,” but identified five areas where the government could get better.
Overall, the government has greatly improved in this area. According to GAO, only 11 agencies failed to report fourth-quarter spending data last year, compared to 28 in fiscal 2017. Similarly, reporting on financial assistance programs improved, with only 39 programs unreported in 2018, compared to 160 in 2017.
However, while more agencies reported spending data, that data was not always complete, with required fields missing from many submissions. At its worst, 35 non-CFO Act agencies submitted blank files with no data.
“Agencies told us they submitted files without data for reasons including: (1) their data was submitted by and comingled with their shared service provider’s DATA Act submissions; (2) they did not have award activity to report or award activity was below the micro-purchase threshold for reporting; and (3) they do not use the Federal Procurement Data System Next Generation or their systems were unable to produce the data necessary to create the files,” GAO reported.
Two larger agencies also submitted incomplete data: the departments of Defense and Treasury.
GAO noted this issue could largely be resolved through added oversight. During the review process, auditors reached out to the 18 agencies that failed to meet the submission deadline.
“Subsequently, five of them submitted their data late,” the report states, “demonstrating that simple monitoring tasks such as a follow up call or email can result in actions taken by the agencies.”
While GAO reports a significant jump in the accuracy of the data reported, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
During the analysis, GAO auditors looked at how the data sets submitted matched against source records maintained at each agency.
“GAO estimates with 95% confidence that between 84% and 96% of the budgetary transactions and between 24% and 34% of the award transactions were fully consistent for all applicable data elements,” the report states. While those numbers are far from perfect—especially when it comes to grant awards—they are far superior to figures reported in 2017. Last year, GAO estimated only 56% to 75% of spending data was accurately reported, dropping to 0% to 1% when it came to awards transactions.
Use of Data Standards
Even if all the data is there, if it is not categorized the same way across all agencies, there can be no direct comparisons and little insight to be gleaned. In the latest report, GAO cites two data elements that have been giving agencies the most trouble: Award Description and Primary Place of Performance Address.
“These data elements are particularly important to achieving the transparency goals envisioned by the DATA Act because they inform the public what the federal government spends money on and where it is spent,” auditors wrote. However, agencies appear to be confused by OMB guidance for these two elements.
GAO found 24% to 35% of Award Description data reported was inconsistent with agency records. Auditors did not give a percentage of inconsistent data reported on Primary Place of Performance Address but noted that data field “had higher rates of inconsistency than the majority of the data elements in our review.”
GAO also found some issues with the website itself. While these problems are not as systemic as the others, auditors noted that the central purpose of the DATA Act is to increase transparency, and poor web design is an impediment to that effort.
The report cites two specific examples around a lack of clarity in the data.
“For example, the 90-day delay for inclusion of Department of Defense procurement data is not clearly communicated. In addition, although the website provides a total figure for unreported spending it is unclear whether it includes the 11 agencies that did not submit data,” the report states. “Not knowing this information could lead users of USASpending.gov to inadvertently draw inaccurate conclusions from the data.”
Similar to the website user experience, GAO also identified issues with how OMB and Treasury manage data governance across government. While the agencies have released guidance on data standards for reporting, they have yet to develop any enforcement mechanisms to ensure the rest of government is in compliance.
“Persistent challenges related to how agencies interpret and apply data standards underscore GAO’s prior recommendations on establishing a governance structure that ensures the integrity of these standards,” auditors wrote.
Overall, GAO made two new recommendations Treasury around alerting USASpending.gov users to limitations in the data. The agency agreed with both.