Nine Months to Reporting Deadline, GAO Finds Two Big DATA Act Challenges


The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released two reports assessing the federal government’s work on the DATA Act. Nine months from now, in May 2017, every federal agency must begin reporting standardized spending data.

If the agencies follow the law, and if they report good, quality data, they’ll create the world’s most valuable open data set: a single, standardized view of the spending of the entire federal executive branch.

(Want to see how next May’s deadline fits in the whole story of the DATA Act? Check out this DATA Act overview infographic with the implementation timeline. And for a review of the GAO’s last major DATA Act report, in January 2016, check out our blog summary).

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of the Treasury are leading the agencies toward the DATA Act’s goal, under GAO’s watchful eye.

GAO’s first report assessed the agencies’ plans to standardize and report their spending data. The second report examined the reporting process that Treasury and OMB have set up – the process that will kick into gear in May 2017.

In general, the work is going well. Every big agency says it’s going to be ready for May 2017. Treasury and the Department of Justice successfully demonstrated Treasury’s open-source DATA Act Broker – software that helps agencies translate spending data into the DATA Act’s government-wide standard format – last month.

But GAO has found two big challenges.

OMB Doesn’t Know Which Agencies are Covered by the Law

Last year, OMB called for agencies to write, and submit, plans for the DATA Act. GAO’s first report examines these plans.

(The plans aren’t public; neither the agencies nor OMB are willing to publish them. In fact OMB refused to provide them to GAO’s investigators (page 29); instead, OMB directed GAO to separately request them from each agency.)

GAO assessed whether agency implementation plans properly include details such as a detailed timeline, proper cost estimates, a descriptive narrative, and robust project plans.

The good news is that GAO found 42 agencies that have prepared implementation plans at this point. For a detailed list of all the agencies with active implementation plans, see Table 8 in the report (page 30).

The bad news? None of the plans contain all the elements they need to (see page 15). For GAO’s comprehensive breakdown, see Table 9 in Appendix II (page 33).

The worse news? In trying to conduct this straightforward review of the agency plans, GAO hit a major roadblock. OMB would not provide GAO with a comprehensive list of agencies that are required to report under the law.  

GAO discovered that OMB has not made a governing determination which agencies are subject to the law (see page 9) and is instead merely focusing on the 24 large agencies that are covered by the CFO Act of 1990 (see page 14).

OMB is letting all the other agencies that exist in our government figure out on their own if they are legally covered by the DATA Act. And OMB has no process to double check this legal decision by the agencies (see page 11).

How can OMB ever hope to implement the DATA Act successfully – and create a government-wide open data set covering spending – if it never even determines which agencies must comply?

The text of the law clearly puts OMB and Treasury in charge of ensuring “each Federal agency” (section 4(c), emphasis added) submits its spending data, starting in May 2017, using the government-wide standard format. (OMB and Treasury have agreed for Treasury to focus on creating the format and OMB to provide governance to agencies – which means that determining the full list of agencies is OMB’s, not Treasury’s, job.)

In fact, OMB has already promised a list of covered agencies to Congress. This past April, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing in which committee member Rep. Glenn Grothman (WI-6) specifically requested that OMB submit a comprehensive list of covered agencies to the committee (see 1:40:40 of the hearing video).

Not only did OMB Controller Dave Mader, promise under oath that he would provide the committee with the list, he went on to testify that “we [OMB] are in the process…of finalizing who we believe under the statute is covered.”

Such a determination has clearly not been made. GAO was forced to build its own list of agencies to audit in for the report.

OMB’s lack of leadership has created ambiguity. GAO reports that of the 51 agencies it selected to review, five agencies declined to provide implementation plans, claiming they are not subject to the law (see Table 8 in the report for this list).

Congress must insist that OMB provide the leadership that the DATA Act, and OMB’s own promises, require. Otherwise federal agencies will be left without clear guidance on their need to comply with the law.

Verified Financial Data? Check! Verified Award Data? Not Quite…

GAO’s second report reviews the technical process for agencies to gather and submit their data to Treasury in preparation for the May 2017 deadline.

Over the past year Treasury has built, and begun to test, the DATA Act Broker – open-source software that aggregates multiple spending data sets into a single, unified open data file that is ready to be reported to Treasury, starting in May 2017. Once agencies start submitting these data files to Treasury, Treasury will combine them into a single, government-wide data set, and publish that compilation on an expanded version of the USASpending.gov portal.

One of the primary features that makes the DATA Act so unique is the requirement for each agency’s financial information (accounting details, budget actions, etc., maintained by financial systems) to be linked with its award information (grant and contract characteristics, usually maintained separately in each agency’s grant-writing and contract-writing systems). OMB laid out this requirement last year (see page 8 of OMB’s May 2015 guidance).

In other words, agencies must identify which grants and contract awards are funded using which financial accounting and budget categories. This means users should be able to track all of the grants that are funded within a particular account or that are part of a particular program, in a single search.

But here’s the problem: GAO has found that the financial information will be trustworthy. But some of the award information will be questionable.

At each agency, the DATA Act Broker combines data from seven sources to produce a single, unified open data file. Three sources provide financial information. Four sources provide award information. GAO summarizes all this in Table 1 on page 5 of its report.

For financial information, agencies will generate three data files directly from their internal financial systems, and the DATA Act Broker will be able to validate their submissions. But for award information, agencies won’t dig as deep. Most of that data will not be sourced from internal grant-writing and contract-writing systems, but instead from four pre-existing government-wide databases – databases with well-documented quality problems.

As a result, GAO found that the DATA Act Broker will be able to double-check the quality of the financial data sources, but not the quality of the award data sources (only the formatting).