DATA Act – Moving the Needle


This guest blog post comes to us from Mike Wood, who served as Executive Director of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and is now a Director at CGI Federal, a Regular Member of the Data Coalition.

We now have a full year’s worth of standardized spending data under the DATA Act of 2014. Official agency reporting began in May 2017 and continues on a routine basis. This has quietly been the largest federal financial data effort since the implementation of the CFO Act of 1990.

The DATA Act and the work of federal agencies under the lead of OMB and Treasury have produced a number of game changing accomplishments for open data and spending transparency. A short recap would include:

  • Establishment of data standards for spending data including data definitions resulting in an XBRL data set
  • Use of a modern data-centric approach across the government
  • An innovative data broker allowing agencies to transfer records and validate transactions along with data pull capabilities for contracts, grants and loans to utilize existing government data systems
  • Agency focus on data quality and Senior Accountable Official sign off
  • Completion of the pilot to evaluate methods to reduce redundancy of data elements and reporting burden and ongoing efforts to streamline grants management
  • Redesign of the USAspending website to portray the data in a user friendly and accessible fashion
  • Development of data analysis tools as part of USAspending and a Treasury analytical lab to help visualize, understand, and explore government spending

While oversight evaluations and audits by the Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office identified some existing challenges, agencies are addressing these to ensure a full and accurate data set. Now agencies must utilize the available data and match it with other data sets to improve management, provide public transparency and make improvements to government operations.

Key ideas for use of the spending data include:

  • Matching performance results to spending – are programs meeting their objectiives? This will allow more in-depth analysis, although performance data is not standardized or as available as spending data. Program analysis will provide a picture of how well programs met their objectives and if funds were spent efficiently to achieve expected results. In the long term there should be efficiency assessments, such as identifying contracts and vendors doing similar work where the government could reduce duplication and achieve some efficiency of scale.
  • Answering geographic spending questions – is spending equitable? How much has been spent on disaster relief efforts on a geographic basis?  How many education, job training, environmental, housing, and law enforcement dollars have been spent in underserved communities, inner cities or other specific locations?
  • Reviewing potential for programmatic duplication – are there opportunities to eliminate waste and duplication in programs? The full data set should also assist in identifying or even predicting spending mismanagement and anomalies – fraud prevention and improper payment efforts can be more effective with accurate data.
  • Economic forecasting and commercial investment decisions, for example crop damage and spending patterns, or emerging population areas ripe for commercial development.

Moving the needle on spending transparency will requiring continuing the current progress on reporting with expected additional streamlining for grants. With the potential of the GREAT Act, better technology spending decisions resulting from FITARA and the Management Act, and the President’s Management Agenda, the government can build on the successful use of data standards and transparent spending.

In one week, on May 24, CGI Federal and the Data Coalition will co-host a Data Breakfast, How the DATA Act is Modernizing Management. The event will introduce federal financial professionals to the new DATA Act management tools now available to understand spending through live demonstrations from Treasury.

One year after the first DATA Act reporting deadline the cup is half full, as the data starts to be used for management and commercial purposes the true value of the DATA Act is emerging. Join us next Thursday to understand how the data is being used and to explore the long term impacts of transparent spending data.