Congressional Panel Digs into DATA: Lawmakers Emphasize Standards, Question OMB’s Recipient Reporting Pilot


Yesterday’s Oversight Committee witnesses came from the three government agencies whose efforts are central in ensuring the successful implementation of the DATA Act. From left to right: Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General, Government Accountability Office; David Mader, Controller, Office of Management and Budget; David Lebryk, Fiscal Assistant Secretary, Department of the Treasury; and Robert Taylor, Deputy Assistant Inspector General of Audit, Department of the Treasury.

Yesterday’s Oversight Committee witnesses came from the three government agencies whose efforts are central in ensuring the successful implementation of the DATA Act. From left to right: Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General, Government Accountability Office; David Mader, Controller, Office of Management and Budget; David Lebryk, Fiscal Assistant Secretary, Department of the Treasury; and Robert Taylor, Deputy Assistant Inspector General of Audit, Department of the Treasury.

The DATA Act of 2014 is not just about public transparency. In testimony before the House Oversight Committee yesterday, Fiscal Assistant Secretary of the Treasury David Lebryk called it our most important opportunity in a quarter-century to improve the way the government manages itself.

His testimony, and questions from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, hint how open data will transform government once the transformation mandated by the DATA Act is complete.

Yesterday’s hearing, conducted jointly by the Subcommittee on Information Technology and the Subcommittee on Government Operations,  examined Treasury’s and the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) efforts to implement the DATA Act. Members of Congress questioned the executive-branch DATA Act leaders on places where implementation efforts are lagging, showing clearly that Congress won’t forget what the DATA Act requires and won’t rest until it’s done.

Highlights from Wednesday’s hearing:

1. Chairman Will Hurd (IT Subcommittee, R-TX) urged Treasury and OMB to press agencies to quickly map their existing spending information to the DATA Act standards.

Chairman Hurd, who has a background in private-sector IT, expressed skepticism that federal agencies will require the full two-year period the law prescribes to match data from their existing financial and award systems to the 57 data elements announced last May by Treasury and OMB. “For me it doesn’t take two years to map that,” Hurd remarked, questioning Fiscal Assistant Secretary Lebryk about the deadline for the agencies to “just identify” the 57 data elements.

Mr. Lebryk replied that agencies are currently putting small teams together, but acknowledged, “It doesn’t take lots of people to do this.” According to Mr. Lebryk, “From that effort we’ll have a much better sense of the degree of difficulty.” And by end of summer, early September, agencies should each have an implementation plan.

Under Hurd’s questioning, Comptroller General Dodaro testified: “I  don’t  think it should require  a lot of resource to identify whether they have 57 data elements or not.”  To get 24 federal agencies to map 57 pieces of information to a single database doesn’t require two years and $300 million.  Rep. Hurd concluded his round of questioning by offering to backstop Treasury’s efforts to compel agencies to map their existing information to the DATA Act standards: “[T]his will be something that we continue to look at.”

 

2. Chairman Mark Meadows (IT Subcommittee, R-NC) asked OMB to explain why its mandated pilot program to test standardized recipient reporting seems to lack any substance.

Rep. Meadows challenged Controller Mader: “[OMB’s] pilot program [as it’s described to me] misses the target! It’s a blog! It’s not clearly defined.”

Section 5 of the DATA Act requires OMB to conduct a pilot program to test whether the law’s data standards allow grantees and contractors to compile and submit their federal reports more efficiently. OMB has designated the Department of Health and Human Services to lead the pilot for grantee reporting. But no agency or entity has been appointed to conduct the same work for contractor reporting. And neither OMB nor HHS has explained when either grantees or contractors will be invited to voluntarily use the DATA Act data standards within official reports – a necessary step for the pilot to yield any results.

OMB’s only concrete step toward standardized contractor reporting has been to set up a “national dialogue” to ask both contractors and grantees what changes they’d like to see in their compliance challenges.

A national dialogue does not equal a pilot program. In fact, since nobody seems to be participating in the national dialogue, it may not even live up to those lowered expectations. So far only two comments have been posted under the “Contractors” topic of the national dialogue.

Mr. Mader responded to Rep. Meadows’ questions with a defense of OMB’s work. His written testimony says four agencies are now leading the pilot program: OMB, HHS, GSA, and the Chief Acquisition Officers Council.

 

3. Ranking Member Robin Kelly (IT Subcommittee, D-IL) pressed for government-wide anti-fraud analytics.

Rep. Kelly questioned the Treasury Department’s decision not to absorb the the Recovery Operation Center (ROC), the soon-to-expire Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board’s anti-fraud data analytics center. The DATA Act gives the Treasury Department the option of absorbing the ROC, and redeploying it to serve as a portal to assist inspectors general in detecting potential contract and grant fraud across all federal spending. The Treasury Department has decided not to take that step.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have pushed Treasury to let Recovery Board analytics tools live on. But Treasury has responded that the DATA Act didn’t give it crucial law-enforcement authorities or access to key data sets that the ROC was able to use – nor did the DATA Act provide any additional funding.

The ROC demonstrated that analytics, applied to standardized data, can result in real savings: inspectors general using the ROC recovered (or prevented from being paid out) over $100 million and developed recommendations for better uses for over $8 billion. Without the absorption and redeployment of the ROC, it’s nobody’s job to connect inspectors general with the insights that standardization makes possible. Moreover, if the federal government fails to use its spending data, once standardized, to detect fraud, the government will have less incentive to ensure the data is of high quality.

At the hearing, Mr. Lebryk argued that Treasury’s Do Not Pay portal is more comprehensive than the ROC. But the the Do Not Pay website is missing important data. The opportunity to apply Big Data analytics against the whole corpus of federal spending, once standardized under the DATA Act, to fight fraud will be lost – unless Congress chooses to set up a new analytics platform elsewhere in government.

 

4. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) pressed OMB on the need to match performance and spending on a program-by-program basis.

Walberg urged Controller Mader to commit to a time frame for matching the list of federal programs that OMB must compile under the Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010 to the program breakdown that is required by the DATA Act.

Tracking both spending (under DATA) and performance (under GPRAMA) by program was a central recommendation of GAO Comptroller General Dodaro’s testimony. However, Mader responded that OMB would be unable to make any firm commitments because the “same people” who would be tasked with program-by-program performance tracking are also responsible for implementing the DATA Act.