IG Finds Legacy System to Blame for Delayed DHS Data Reporting

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The system the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses to track a flood insurance program lacks automation, slowing DATA Act-required reporting down.

The Homeland Security Department has made strides to better comply with the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency, or DATA, Act, but a legacy system is holding back the department’s progress, according to an audit.

The DATA Act requires agencies to take data on procurement and financial assistance awards and turn them into an open data resource for the public on USASpending.gov. A DHS inspector general audit found the department’s procurement data is high quality, but when it comes to financial assistance, a legacy IT system is disrupting its ability to provide timely and accurate information. 

The audit covered a sample of entries on USASpending.gov from the first quarter of 2019, which the IG previously examined in 2017. Since the previous audit, DHS reduced misaligned data in both procurement and financial assistance award categories from 38%, or close to $1.9 billion, to 4%, or about $264 million. 

While the combination of procurement and financial assistance data yielded an overall “moderate” score, the error rates for the 184 procurement data records survey were low enough for a “high” quality score. Of the three measured categories, the highest error rate for procurement data records was 6.58%

But for the 191 financial assistance records, error rates were significantly higher. The error rate by each category was 10.06% for completeness,  26.02% for accuracy and 67.19% for timeliness. 

All of the financial assistance data the inspector general surveyed came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency’s system for reporting and managing rewards under the National Flood Insurance Program is still in the process of modernizing. According to the audit, processing records took too long and resulted in errors because the old system isn’t automated. 

The DATA Act requires agencies to upload financial assistance information to the Financial Assistance Broker Submission application within 30 days of the grant’s awarding. But the inspector general found FEMA did not report 67% of its award elements on time. 

“Specifically, system limitations adversely affected the timeliness of reporting for awards associated with FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), and a systems integration issue created delays in reporting on FEMA’s grant awards,” the report reads. “These were the two most systemic, material issues impacting the timeliness of financial assistance reporting for DHS.”

The legacy system also improperly aggregated data for organizations and individuals, according to the audit. Data is meant to be aggregated only to protect personally identifiable information for money awarded to individuals. The names of organizations and businesses receiving money are supposed to be fully disclosed, but the old system hid that information.

Lack of automation meant FEMA had to export data for further analysis manually, and information had to be mailed or emailed to FEMA rather than uploaded online. These inefficiencies contributed to delays and errors in the reporting process. 

DHS is currently modernizing the NFIP system, according to the report. The FEMA DATA Act team is testing the new system, ensuring it adheres to the financial assistance data recommendation made in the report. The process will be completed by the end of this year. 

The inspector general indicated this corrective action doesn’t fully account for all errors, though. The audit said the recommendation pertaining to the NFIP system will remain open and unresolved until further corrections are made.  

“DHS’ response did not address correcting the root cause associated with the systems integration issue, which resulted in more than $500 million in grant award misalignments within the Department’s FY 2019/Q1 DATA Act submission,” according to the report. 

Along with the NFIP recommendation, the inspector general outlined four other improvements the department should make in order to better comply with the DATA Act. DHS also needs to “take action to accurately align its budgetary data with the President’s budget, reduce award misalignments across DATA Act files … implement and use government-wide data standards, and update its [data quality plan] to address risks to data quality,” according to the report. DHS concurred with all the recommendations.