Final Data Breakfast of 2014: Federal CFOs Take on the DATA Act Transformation


Final Data Breakfast of 2014: Federal CFOs Take on the DATA Act Transformation

It was standing room only on Monday for the final installment of this year’s Data Transparency Breakfast series, presented by PwC, exploring the impact of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) and similar reforms across government.

For the first time, we were joined by the federal financial officers who will be responsible, under the DATA Act, for applying government-wide data standards to make federal spending information fully searchable, interoperable, and open to all. Our panel—Dorrice Roth, Deputy CFO, Treasury; Sheila Conley, Deputy CFO, HHS; Mark Reger, Deputy Controller, OMB; and Stacy Marcott, Deputy CFO, DHS—explored the challenges and opportunities of this transformation.

The hour-long panel session was packed with insight—perspectives on how the DATA Act will benefit agencies’ internal management, what the current focus of implementation should be, deadline concerns, new business opportunities for the private sector, and more. We’ve outlined our key takeaways below – and you can check Twitter for the play-by-play.

Government-wide data standards for federal spending should allow agencies to improve internal management—without forcing them to redesign or replace their systems.

OMB’s Reger put it this way: “We’ve got to use data as a management tool and we’ve got to make the data we’re collecting valuable to the people who collect the data. The DATA Act is a new orientation for federal government management.” Each federal financial manager represented had a unique take on how standardized data would help their agency better manage itself.

To Sheila Conley at HHS, data is critical to the agency’s functionality. With 300 programs and $1.4 trillion in resources in 2014, HHS would rank in the top ten countries in the world. Conley explained that the DATA Act provides an impetus to standardize across all programs, giving the agency the ability to evaluate performance and manage risks.

Conley said her “Aha moment” came during a predictive analytics pilot program at HHS seeking to identify grantees that might be at risk. The agency faced a series of problems while attempting to provide data for analysis: 1) access to data is difficult, 2) the attainable data had quality issues, and 3) the format was seldom machine-readable. Conley explained that federal grant making is what HHS does; it’s how the agency carries out its mission. And “structured data is key to knowing whether or not HHS is making a difference.”

Stacy Marcott of DHS stressed that her agency has six accounting systems, none of which links to the resource management systems that manage grants and contracts: “We’re as stove-piped as it gets.”

“Standards are scary,” admitted Marcott, “[but] I need a way to be able to pull the data from those systems and map it to a standard format.” For example, she explained, securing the U.S. border involves three different DHS entities—each with different programs, systems, and procurement—all aligning to a common goal. If DHS could align the data of all the different programs involved in border security, the agency could more effectively manage its border security spending. Marcott is hopeful that Treasury and OMB’s government-wide data standards can provide a smarter way to align individual assets, evaluate, and manage organizations better than the current no-standards system.

Treasury and OMB are working on a way to map federal spending data to a standard without requiring agencies’ systems to be changed. The panel agreed that this, as Marcott put it, would be “way easier.”

The executives in charge of the DATA Act and complying agencies agree on a key implementation priority: government-wide data standards start with common data elements for common concepts.

The panel agreed on the importance, and difficulty, of establishing a government-wide data element dictionary for federal spending. This comes on the heels of comments made last Wednesday (Dec. 3) by OMB Controller David Mader at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing on DATA Act implementation. Mader indicated that OMB’s current implementation focus is on “intellectual work,” which he said meant establishing a data dictionary, rather than “moving data around.”

Agreeing on definitions for each individual data element is a key aspect of the government-wide data standards. The fact that agencies and the executives in charge of the DATA Act are on the same page and, as the saying goes, “putting first things first” is great news during these early days of implementation.

Agencies seem to be fully aware, but not fully embracing, the aggressive timeline of DATA Act implementation.

The DATA Act puts Treasury and OMB on an aggressive timeline to establish the data standards by May 9, 2015, with agencies starting to use them for financial, payment, budget, grant, and contract reporting by May 9, 2017.

About midway through the breakfast Monday morning, moderator Joe Kull of PwC offered an opportunity for the agencies represented to “give advice to OMB.” The agency officers suggested some deadlines might not be met. Dorrice Roth of Treasury outlined that it’s “meeting the intent” of the DATA Act that is of paramount importance, not necessarily meeting deadlines. “Let’s get this right,” Roth said. Conley also underplayed the importance of looming deadlines, “We need to take a long view of ‘how do we comply and meet statutory requirements.’ Let’s take this as an opportunity to think about our data longer term.”

OMB on the future of implementation: “There is a ton of work to be done.”

OMB’s Mark Reger compared the DATA Act to the Full Employment Act, noting, “there is a ton of work to be done.” Reger said that the input from data transparency consultants, contractors, and data specialists is needed to tell the implementing federal executives what data is most important and help with analysis.

The DATA Act could bring unprecedented accountability for U.S. citizens and advances in management for federal agencies—but it all depends on implementation. To that end, our Coalition will keep scrutinizing the federal government’s progress.

Last month we issued a formal comment explaining what federal spending data standards must look like in order to be effective. Next year we’ll be connecting with Treasury, OMB, and implementing agencies through informal Coalition member roundtables and through public events.