GAO Reports on DATA Act Governance

Mention the Federal Government, and it is impossible not to picture mountains of data. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) is intended to provide a structure, which includes the creation of Federal data standards, in order to more effectively use and analyze the significant amount of available Government data. The intent of the Act is to:

“(1) expand the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 by disclosing direct federal agency expenditures and linking federal contract, loan, and grant spending information to programs of federal agencies to enable taxpayers and policy makers to track federal spending more effectively;

(2) provide consistent, reliable, and searchable government-wide spending data that is displayed accurately for taxpayers and policy makers on the USASpending.gov website;

(3) analyze federal spending data to proactively prevent waste, fraud, abuse, and improper payments;

(4) simplify reporting for entities receiving federal funds by streamlining reporting requirements and reducing compliance costs while improving transparency; and

(5) improve the quality of data submitted to USASpending.gov by holding federal agencies accountable for the completeness and accuracy of the data submitted.”

A recent General Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress included a review of steps that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Department of the Treasury (Treasury) have taken to create a governance structure for the Act and solicit input from stakeholders.

Governance Initiatives

The GAO review of the DATA Act governance structure indicates that progress has been made, but improvements are still needed. Thus far, the two agencies have created a governance process which includes:

  • An executive steering committee promulgates policy guidance and makes important policy decisions that affect the DATA Act’s implementation throughout the Government. The committee includes the OMB Controller and Treasury’s Fiscal Assistant Secretary.
  • An Interagency Advisory Committee (IAC) supports the executive steering committee by providing recommendations regarding implementation of the DATA Act. The IAC includes officials from a number of agencies. Members must provide their agencies with updates and leadership for Act implementation. Each agency is also tasked with identifying a senior accountability executive and creating a team to coordinate implementation.

Standards Maintenance

GAO also noted that OMB and Treasury must continue to build a data governance structure that goes beyond the birth of data standards. It should also offer a framework for:

  • Adjudicating any revisions
  • Enforcing standards established
  • Maintaining standards integrity over time

The ideal structure should include processes to accomplish:

  • Evaluation, coordination, approval, and implementation of changes to standards
  • Maintenance of established standards
  • Obtaining agreement from stakeholders

OMB and Treasury should, GAO suggested, create a set of clear policies and processes to both develop and maintain data standards.

Challenges

The Treasury Inspector General (IG) identified potential problems that could block effective implementation of the DATA Act. These include:

  • DATA Act workstreams were missing important elements such as progress metrics, tools to plan projects, and collaboration documentation that are considered best practices for project management
  • Project planning documents failed to describe the various project methodology approaches for each workstream

Treasury agreed with the IG recommendation to define the methodology used for project management of all significant workstreams. The Agency also agreed on the importance of making sure that project management artifacts associated with those respective project management methodologies are both adopted and maintained.

Stakeholder Issues

One crucial component of data governance is developing a process for surveying and obtaining agreement from stakeholders. Although OMB and Treasury have made some successful efforts to accomplish this goal, more needs to be done to achieve “meaningful two-way dialogue.”

Stakeholder dialogue is a specific objective of the Federal Spending Transparency GitHub site. The site is intended to use interactive stakeholder comments in the continued development of data standards.

The Bottom Line

GAO has recommended that the Director of OMB collaborate with the Secretary of the Treasury to make sure that initiatives maintain the integrity of data standards for the long term. Establishing a group of easily understood policies and processes for the development and maintenance of standards, as well as a solid governance structure, will allow for the original intent of the DATA Act to be fulfilled; access to reliable, trackable and searchable Federal spending data to provide for more robust analysis and reporting of Federal funds.

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