GAO: Expect Delays in DATA Act Financial Reporting

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The mechanics of reporting that data are messy, a watchdog report finds, and officials at least in one agency think they might miss the deadline.

A law requiring federal agencies to make spending data transparent might be off to a rocky start.

Under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, known as the DATA Act, federal agencies must make their spending information public by May 2017. But the mechanics of actually reporting that data are messy, a watchdog report finds, and officials in at least one agency think they might miss the deadline.

Adding to findings from a report published earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office found the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget — tasked with implementing the DATA Act for federal agencies —face significant hurdles including data accuracy.

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GAO examined the DATA Act broker system, designed to validate and standardize the data submitted by federal agencies, and the technical guidance given to agencies describing how and what information to submit. That framework is known as the DATA Act Information Model Schema.

Under the act, agencies will submit new spending information, but contract award information will funnel into the system from whatever software agencies already use, the report said.

"The continued reliance on existing source systems with known data quality challenges ... raises concerns about the quality of the data submitted to," GAO wrote.

Though the broker, which Treasury plans to release in the fall, will do validation checks on the data submitted by agencies, officials said it won't validate the data from agencies' award reporting systems — and "they have no plans to add additional validation tools to ensure the data from these award systems are accurate," GAO found.

Delays in releasing the schema could also postpone agency implementation, GAO found. Treasury released the first version of the schema in April 2016, four months after it was originally planned. Officials said the delay was because of "ongoing deliberations" with OMB and other groups, "specifically whether to leverage award data from existing award reporting systems or to obtain these data directly from agencies.”

That delay impacted vendors and agencies, including Oracle, which said it waited to develop software patches until it saw a "stable version" of that schema. As a result, officials at the Health and Human Services Department "expressed concerns about not being able to fully meet their reporting requirements by May 2017," GAO found.

Agencies may need to test and customize software patches before they can send data to Treasury, but it's "unclear" how much time they'll need, GAO wrote.