Pressures mount to deliver on DATA Act promises

Christina Ho, deputy assistant secretary for financial transparency at the Treasury Department, speaking at AFCEA Bethesda forum Dec. 3, 2015. (FedScoop photo)

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Pressure is building for federal agencies to not only develop new financial data reporting systems in time to meet a May 2017 deadline, but to also make sure the job gets done right, according to federal IT officials.

A lot is riding on how well agencies actually deliver on requirements in the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, a law enacted in May 2014 aimed at standardizing financial reporting of government spending — which totaled $3.7 trillion last fiscal year — and making that data more accessible to the public.

“It is just not acceptable in a 21st century government that we have to make data calls, when people can speak into their phones and ask where’s the closest pizza place,” said Christina Ho, deputy assistant secretary for financial transparency at the Treasury Department, which along with the Office of Management and Budget, is charged with carrying out the law.

“That’s a huge number,” she said, noting U.S. government spending, including grants to states and local services, represents roughly 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

“It’s unacceptable for us not to know…what we get out of it. And it’s something we know the public is demanding [to know] on an increasing basis,” Ho said, speaking Thursday at a government and industry forum hosted by the Bethesda, Maryland, chapter of the Armed Forces Electronics and Communications Association.

At the same time, that number also “implies significant opportunity for business value,” she said. “I’m always amazed how Facebook seems to know what I want to buy,” but how difficult it remains, she said, to get a comparable handle on potential opportunities otherwise buried in the government’s financial reports.

The DATA Act is a key step in getting closer to that goal. Among other things, it requires agencies to standardize the reference tags and reporting schemas associated with varying reports on literally hundreds of legacy financial reporting systems across the federal government. OMB and the Treasury Department reached a critical milestone in September when, after a year of discussion, they released a final version of all 57 data standards related to the DATA Act, although not without controversy.

The challenge for IT and financial executives is how to extract and report financial data in accordance with the newly established standards, given the financial constraints and mandatory deadlines placed upon agencies.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which has eight major financial systems, illustrates the challenge a number of large agencies face.

“HHS is a trillion dollar agency. You don’t want to, for the sake of reporting, break a process,” said Michael Peckam, part of the DATA Act Project Management Office at HHS. “Imagine if we’re unable to make a Medicaid payment for three or four days. States depend on this. So we want to be very cautious on this.”

“The approach we’re taking is to connect with the all business lines ­ — acquisition, financial management, grants ­— so if you change a term [we understand], what’s that going to do to our system.”

“The key change for us of the DATA Act is tying that expenditure data into the reports that we have to submit to USASpending.gov,” which must tie back directly to agency financial systems, he said.

There are different approaches agencies can take, Peckham said, noting that other agencies with multiple financial systems in the past have created a data warehouse, exporting the information, massaging it and delivering reports from there.

“Our thought is, there are business intelligence tools that are sitting out there that can link into [existing systems]. Once we have the data standards defined, have the schema for reporting out there, and we understand [our databases] completely, we can, I think, take a [business intelligence] tool, link into those different systems and start pulling information out.”

He said HHS is currently undergoing a critical systems assessment, which began in October, to identify data quality and reporting issues. HHS has yet to determine which BI tool or tools will do the job.

Ho, the Treasury official, said the broader strategy for agencies is to make the data ultimately more portable, likening the job to what has happened to telephone numbers.

“Not too long ago, our phone numbers were tied to a physical location: the area code tells you the state, the exchange tells you the region within at the state. Every time you moved, you had to get a new number. We don’t have to do that anymore, because the numbers are portable,” she said.

She argued for taking a similar approach with financial data: “Making data portable so that the data does not have to be tied to a system in order to be interpreted. And that’s what we’re working toward.”

Data quality

Ho also stressed the importance of ensuring the quality and documenting the origin of the data that emerges out of the DATA Act.

“That means the data ownership and accountability must be clearly established because we’re talking about data that is sitting across all the systems across the government. If the data providence is so obscure [and questions arise around the data] there is no way we can trace it back to what the problem really is. That’s very important and that’s part of our design and architecture,” she said.

“But we don’t just want to be compliant,” Peckham, said, speaking during a roundtable session. “At the end of the day, we want this to be an exercise that allows us to make better decisions as an organization. My assistant secretary said to me, when I was hired: ‘I want this DATA Act to be the stepping stone to Quickbooks for me, so that I can I understand exactly what my organization is doing and make educated decision.’”

Ho acknowledged “this is a very challenging project for us,” and agencies at large.

“We must use modern technology and do the implementation in an agile way,” even though agencies haven’t been given extra funding to complete the task. Nevertheless, she said, “The government cannot afford to try to build a large system. That’s why we need all the help we can get from some [industry and agencies] to get through this implementation.”

Herb Strauss, assistant deputy commissioner for systems and deputy CIO at the Social Security Administration, put the challenge for top agency officials into perspective: “The infrastructure is not accommodating,” he said.

“Aspirationally, we’re talking agile, and DevOps, continuous development and release, transparency and openness, but at the end of the day, I only have so much money and I’m going to [use it to] execute my mission,” he said.

Ho was optimistic agencies would make their compliance goals, although she hinted at the difficulties ahead.

“I don’t know what exactly the outcome will be May 2017, but I can guarantee you … we will be a lot better than where we are now.”

You can contact the reporter at wyatt.kash@fedscoop.com or on Twitter @Wyatt Kash.

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DATA Act, data analytics, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Departments, Tech, Treasury Department
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