Breakfast Recap: One Agency Already Reaping DATA Act Benefits, Others’ Data Systems Still “Wild West”


Tuesday morning’s Data Transparency Breakfast introduced a standing room only crowd at PwC to front-line DATA Act implementers and provided a glimpse of the first-ever DATA Act visualization platform from a federal agency.

Tim Gribben, deputy CFO at the Small Business Administration, explained how after his agency “did the DATA Act” the SBA suddenly had new insight into its own grants system. Working with the Treasury Department and the GSA’s 18F team, Gribben matched the SBA’s spending information – sourced from financial and award systems – to the new, government-wide data standards that Treasury and the White House established earlier this year. Once standardized, all the information could be visualized as one picture.

Gribben noted, “The DATA Act data visualization tool was the real eye opener for me.” He said that the visualization platform was what really changed his mind on the DATA Act—from being “just another compliance exercise” to a transformative change that will significantly improve agencies ability to manage themselves.

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Looking through the data, Gribben was surprised find that a nonprofit organization based in San Antonio called LiftFund (formerly Accion Texas Inc.) had received separate awards from two different SBA programs—the Women’s Business Centers program and the Microloan program. But because the two programs are managed by completely different offices within the SBA, they had no idea that they were both giving awards to the same entity. Though this isn’t an example of duplication or overlap, as LiftFund delivers multiple services for SBA, it does highlight a situation in which one office at SBA (a very small agency) has no idea what another is doing.

FCW’s Zach Noble reported that the same data linkage also highlights other shortcomings. Looking at a map data visualization of SBA’s microloans, Gribben realized that a large part of the country is underserved by their microloan program, and he had no idea.

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. —Zach Noble, FCW

Meanwhile, on the day Star Wars tickets went on presale for the newest installment in the franchise, deputy controller of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Mark Reger, couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the morning’s discussion. “The DATA Act is the Star Wars of federal financial reporting,” Reger said. In 1977, the original film fundamentally changed the aesthetics and narratives of Hollywood films and the effects on filmmaking (and culture) are still prevalent today. If the DATA Act is fully implemented, according to Reger, the federal government’s finances will be “light years ahead” of the financial and programmatic information available today.

Interestingly, OMB’s Reger also noted that procurement data submitted to government-wide Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) is not all that reliable.

Veterans Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary for Finance Laurie Park highlighted the scarce resources and lack of funding designated for the federal agencies mandated implement the DATA Act. “Our challenges are immense. We have very disparate systems. I think we have 150 different financial systems we have to link to, and that doesn’t include our contracting system that’s not linked in any way. Right now, we don’t have any numbering scheme to link contracting information in our financial management system.” Park concluded, “It’s still the Wild West at the VA.”

Ultimately, Tuesday’s breakfast showed the DATA Act isn’t just about government transparency. If the executive branch is able to conquer tough management challenges and resource limitations and transform its financial information from documents into searchable data, then CFO shops will be able to deploy powerful, cheap management tools that make everything work better.