Watchdog: OMB, Treasury need to clarify DATA Act standards

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The Obama administration has to do a better job of tightening data standards and issuing technical guidance related to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, according to a report released Friday by a government watchdog.

The Government Accountability Office found that of the 57 data elements defined for use with the DATA Act by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department, a few of the definitions could eventually lead to inconsistent reporting, creating the possibility that agencies could misrepresent the way their funds are spent.

Additionally, GAO found that OMB and Treasury need to issue better guidance for agencies looking to standardize the reporting of spending data before a delay causes the project to miss deadlines.

The DATA Act requires agencies to make their financial, budget, payment, grant and contract data interoperable when published to USASpending.gov, the federal government’s hub of publicly available financial data, by May 9, 2017. The data will allow the public to track money through multiple points of the spending process, from appropriation to awards to dissemination.

However, GAO found gaps in data standards that could lead to faulty information on what goods and services agencies are paying for and where the work related to government contracts is being conducted.

For data related to “award description,” GAO found that agencies often use shorthand descriptions that can only be understood by procurement officials — the report mentions a contract description where “4506135384!DUMMY LOA” related to the purchase of metal pipes — or use blanket terms that don’t describe what a contract covers.

“This lack of basic clarity would make the data element difficult for others outside the agency to understand and would also limit the ability to meaningfully aggregate or compare this data across the federal government,” the report reads.

GAO also took issue with the “predominant performance” data point, which describes where the work related to a contract is taking place. Agencies have been found to describe this in different ways — differing amongst where the contract takes place, where the recipient of the work is located and the location of an administrative headquarters. While OMB and Treasury have worked on creating better alternatives, the watchdog wants all agencies to be on the same page with this data point by the time the spending portal goes live in 2017.

In order for that data to meet all consistent standards, auditors also asked for OMB and Treasury to move quicker on their technical guidance that standardizes the format and structure by which agencies report their spending data.

Treasury has created a broker that allows for agencies to format their data to meet requirements, but according to GAO, the system only works with grant data. Officials provided GAO with little detail on how contract, loan and other award data would work, or whether the broker system would work with agency financial reporting systems.

GAO recommended that both OMB and Treasury issue clarifications and align guidances with DATA Act deadlines. Both offices generally agreed with the the recommendations.  

Contact the reporter on this story via email at greg.otto@fedscoop.com, or follow him on Twitter at @gregotto. His OTR and PGP info can be found hereSubscribe to the Daily Scoop for stories like this in your inbox every morning by signing up here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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Agencies, DATA Act, Departments, Government Accountability Office (GAO), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Treasury Department
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