HHS DATA Act Pilot Program Promises Automated Reporting for Grantees – Maybe


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(An image taken at Data Transparency 2015 from left to right: Mike Peckham, Director, HHS DATA Act PMO; Ann Ebberts, CEO, Association of Government Accountants; Chris Zeleznik, Lead for Intergovernmental Recipient Engagement for HHS DATA Act PMO)

The DATA Act of 2014 is transforming federal spending information from disconnected documents into open, searchable data. It’s America’s first open data law, and it promises to deliver better transparency to citizens and the public. But transparency isn’t the only goal of the DATA Act.

By promoting a common data format for all the information that non-federal grantees and contractors must report when they receive taxpayer funds, the DATA Act also seeks to help those recipients automate compliance work that used to be manual.

Grantees and contractors must find their way through a complex landscape of hundreds of forms with thousands of data elements. Today, those forms are mostly expressed as documents. But if the federal government replaced those documents with consistently-structured data, grantees’ and contractors’ software could automatically compile and submit the same information.

Until the DATA Act, nobody was in charge of the whole landscape of grant and contract reporting. The DATA Act changes that. The law directs the Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to create government-wide data standards – consistent data fields and formats – for all federal spending information. That includes agencies’ financial and budget reports and grantees’ and contractors’ reports too.

For grantees and contractors, the law requires OMB to run a pilot program to test whether these data standards can be used by grantees and contractors to automate their reports. OMB appointed the Department of Health and Human Services to handle half of the pilot program: the grants half. HHS set up a special office at its Washington headquarters to handle the pilot program and all things DATA Act. HHS is planning to reach out to grantees to invite them to submit their regular reports using the new data standards, and see if their software can automatically generate the information.

On Monday the Coalition filed an official comment letter with HHS to register our support for this work. We pointed out that unless HHS is able to gather a group of grantees and test the data standards, there will be no way to modernize grant reporting across the whole federal government. We also laid out four things HHS (and OMB) should do to make sure the pilot program succeeds:

1. HHS and OMB have to convey a compelling vision for transforming grant reporting. OMB’s Congressional testimony has implied that this program is just intended to “simplify” the compliance process for grantees and contractors. That’s not ambitious enough. The DATA Act gives OMB (and HHS, running the grants side of the pilot) an opportunity to transform the whole business of grant reporting. OMB and HHS should keep that vision in mind.

2. HHS should make sure it tests standards that cover all kinds of grant reports. HHS is starting its work with a tremendous asset: the Central Data Element Repository Library (CDERL), a list of all the data elements in all the grant reporting forms used by HHS and its component agencies. The CDERL has been updated so that it’s consistent with the government-wide data standards announced last year by Treasury and OMB under the DATA Act. But it will be important for HHS to expand the CDERL so that it includes not just all of HHS’ grant reporting forms, but the whole government’s.

3. HHS should engage with all the grantor agencies. The DATA Act’s scope is government-wide. The grant reporting pilot program’s should be government-wide, too.

4. HHS should work with the vendors of grantees’ data management software. Most grantees are already using some kind of software to manage their data. By working with the vendors of that software – who are naturally eager to expand the services they can offer their clients – HHS can quickly test whether the software can be calibrated to the data standards.

You’ll find our full comment letter here. And, throughout this coming year, we’ll be featuring HHS’ DATA Act program leaders in our events to help them connect with grantees and the tech companies whose solutions can replace manual compliance with lines of code!