HHS pilot could change the way government reports on grants spending

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A new report from the Data Foundation points to the success of a Department of Health and Human Services pilot program to divine the government’s potential to untangle the bureaucracy of federal grant reporting.

The report, “Transforming Federal Grant Reporting: Open the Data, Reduce Compliance Costs, and Deliver Transparency,” advocates for the government to streamline the way it reports on more than $600 billion in annual federal grant funding by using open source data formats to document them.

“If the federal government adopts a standardized data structure of common data fields and formats, applies that structure to all of the reports that grantees must file and publishes all of this information as open data, then the central problems of grant reporting can be solved,” the report says.

Those problems have been repeatedly examined by the Government Accountability Office and often stem from duplicative, conflicting processes and lengthy reporting requirements.

The Data Foundation — which has advocated for legislation that promotes the federal use of standardized data fields and formats for reporting on government spending — said a potential bedrock for an open source reporting system already exists in the form of a pilot undertaken by HHS as part of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014.

The 2015 pilot called on the agency to develop the Common Data Element Repository, or CDER, Library: a kind of glossary of data terms that can be translated across the entities that handle them for grant reporting.

The two-year pilot tested whether the standardized grant reporting system could be effectively applied from reports submitted by more than 350 grantees.

The Office of Management and Budget said in its August report on the program that grantees that used the CDER provided grant reports that were more accurate, faster and more inexpensive to compose. It also offered three recommendations to capitalize on the pilot program.

Data Foundation officials said that OMB’s recommendation for “developing a comprehensive taxonomy of standard definitions for core data elements” shows that it plans to apply an open source system to federal grant reporting, though the timeline remains unclear.

Though the report’s authors concede that by altering how all federal agencies process their grant reporting, the federal government must first overcome the significant cost and obstacles of the move, the recent success of the CDER and other programs also shows that standardization is possible.

“Similarly the CDER Library represents the government’s first conscious attempt at a government-wide open data structure, and the Section 5 pilot program results show that the attempt was successful,” the report says. “The CDER Library is not the only possible foundation for the necessary open data structure but it is, today, the best-developed.”

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DATA Act, Data Foundation, Department of Health and Human Services, Government Accountability Office, Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
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