Last week, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio—who, alongside Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, co-authored the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act)—raised questions about the law’s implementation at a Senate Committee on Finance hearing.
The DATA Act seeks to transform federal spending into open data by May 2017. That enormous and important undertaking will require continued oversight from Congress. The Data Transparency Coalition applauds Senator Portman for keeping his finger on the pulse.
The DATA Act transformation has two parts. First, by May 2017, agencies must start reporting their spending using new, government-wide data standards announced earlier this year by the Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Second, under Section 5 of the new law, OMB must run a pilot program to test whether the new data standards allow recipients of grants and contracts to submit their required reports more efficiently. OMB’s pilot program has, so far, failed to launch.
In an exchange with U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro—who leads the Government Accountability Office, the main federal auditor—Senator Portman fingered OMB’s lagging efforts.
“Section 5 was meant to ensure that we get better information in a standardized electronic format and then determine whether we’re able to use that format to automate the creation of reports and reduce the compliance cost, among other things, to these grantees and contractors.” Senator Portman said. “[To] my understanding OMB has yet to recruit any grantees or contractors to participate in the pilot program that was set up.”
Senator Portman—himself a former director of OMB, in the second Bush administration—then asked Comptroller General Dodaro, “Are you investigating whether OMB is complying with this part of the law?”
While OMB has designated the department of Health and Human Services to lead the pilot for grantee reporting, no agency or entity has been appointed to conduct the same work for contractor reporting.
Mr. Dodaro said the GAO is looking into whether or not OMB is really complying with Section 5 of the DATA Act, noting he was “concerned that they haven’t really identified the proper pilot for the contract side” and that “if they don’t start soon, this summer, they’re gonna not meet the requirement.”
Mr. Dodaro also noted that he is “concerned about the governance structure.” OMB’s Acting Deputy Director for Management and Controller, David Mader, testified before Congress in a July 2015 hearing that four agencies are now driving the pilot program: OMB, HHS, General Services Administration (GSA), and the Chief Acquisition Officers Council (CAOC) — leaving doubt as to which agency is actually in charge.
Mr. Mader’s written testimony from that July hearing describes three components to the Section 5 pilot program: 1) a National Dialogue, 2) a Grants.gov website, and 3) the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Common Data Elements Repository Library website. The mere existence of these online resources—an online forum, plus two other online resources—does not equal a real pilot program.
If fully implemented, the DATA Act has the power to bring about better accountability for taxpayers and citizens; improve federal management by illuminating waste and fraud; and reduce compliance costs by automating the creation of reports by grantees and contractors. But that third benefit seems to depend on whether Sen. Portman and Comptroller General Dodaro keep up the pressure on OMB.