How the Data Act reveals what agencies don't know

Can centralized, standardized looks at agencywide data uncover challenges and opportunities that have always been lurking?

Shining a bright light into a dark space is bound to reveal some unknowns, but it could highlight opportunities as well.

Tim Gribben, deputy chief financial officer at the Small Business Administration, shared some of the insights he has gained during the trek toward complying with the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

Syncing up disparate pieces of data is central to the Data Act's financial transparency goals, which ultimately seeks to create an environment in which each instance of government spending can be tracked throughout its life cycle in standardized, searchable online forms. During an Oct. 20 breakfast sponsored by the Data Transparency Coalition, Gribben highlighted how that approach has opened his eyes.

By linking financial data with place-based performance data, he said he was able to identify synergies among SBA contract winners, such as Accion.

In fiscal 2014, SBA awarded Accion contracts for women's business counseling and training and for a microloan program. Because the awards came from two different program offices, however, SBA officials were clueless about Accion's potential until they got the bird's-eye view afforded by the Data Act, Gribben said.

"There's no way that [the two different program offices] would have known, necessarily, that this entity received two different awards from SBA," he said. "I didn't know [that type of dual-purpose information] existed, sitting in the CFO's office, and it makes me wonder what other synergies might exist that we're not exploring…because one program office doesn't know where another program office made awards."

Uncovering gaps

The same data linkage also highlighted shortcomings. "There's this large part of the country which is underserved from the [SBA's] microloan program, and I didn't know it," Gribben said.

It wasn't until he got a peek at a Data Act-powered visualization -- a map of the U.S. showing program awards and their geographical reach -- that he clearly saw that huge swathes of the Rocky Mountain West, the Mississippi Delta and a big chunk of North Carolina were not covered by SBA microloans.

If data linkage within one small agency has already revealed such big opportunities for growth and change, Gribben said connecting data among agencies could go even further to help government achieve its mission.

"How much more am I going to be able to link?" Gribben wondered, looking forward to future revelations.

FOIA deluge?

Bringing previously siloed financial data together, however, is bound to reveal some discrepancies. "My fear is we're going to start getting tons of [Freedom of Information Act] requests to explain our data," Gribben said, noting that "there will be disconnects" in the financial reporting.

He said SBA can almost completely reconcile the numbers on with its awards data, but given the new accounting challenges, it's unlikely any agency will be 100 percent squared up. And that made him wonder what the Office of Management and Budget's tolerance for discrepancies might be.

"What happens when we have tons of errors that pop up?" he asked. "We still don't know exactly what we are reconciling to."

Mark Reger, deputy controller at OMB, offered a few words of reassurance. He said it's a brave new world for CFOs as they incorporate data over which they have no control into a unified structure.

The key will be teamwork, he added.

"For the CFOs, yes, you have ignored the procurement people for all these years," Reger said. "Now you're going to have to work together."