Ever wonder how federal agencies spend the trillions of dollars they’re allotted each year? Well Congress did too, and it passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act), which required agencies to submit standardized, accurate financial information so that legislators, government officials, and the taxpaying public can follow the money more closely.
Today’s WatchBlog looks at agencies’ efforts—and remaining challenges—as they have prepared to report by the act’s reporting deadline, which hits today, May 8, 2017.
Three years later, are agencies ready?
Over the past 3 years, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Department of the Treasury (Treasury), and federal agencies have taken steps towards addressing policy and technical hurdles to producing comparable spending information. For example, OMB and Treasury established financial data standards and related guidance to assist agencies in preparing their spending data, and Offices of Inspector General (OIG) reviewed their agencies’ implementation plans to help identify challenges.
(Excerpted from GAO’s Management Agenda)
That said, our recent review of 30 OIG DATA Act readiness reviews found widely varying expectations about agencies’ abilities to meet the act’s requirements by the reporting deadline.
(Excerpted from GAO-17-460)
A majority of OIG reports also noted persistent, unaddressed implementation challenges—including systems integration issues and a lack of resources. We also found that neither OMB nor Treasury adequately used the OIG readiness reviews to identify implementation issues and potentially address government-wide challenges. We recommended they do so in the future.
Data quality concerns continue
Even if every agency is able to submit standardized spending information by the deadline, will that information be accurate? The answer to that depends on the agency.
We don’t expect agencies’ initial spending data to be uniformly complete or accurate, and a number of factors are responsible. For example:
- Previously identified weaknesses in agencies’ accounting and financial management processes, as well as financial systems and IT security, increase the risk that inaccurate, incomplete spending data will be reported.
- Current OMB and Treasury guidance inadequately details how agencies should report certain information—such as transactions between each other—and will likely impact the uniformity of data presented to the public.
Although OMB and Treasury acknowledge the first round of data will be far from perfect, it’s still important that agencies get this spending information out there, and be transparent about its strengths and weaknesses. Why? Because reporting this amount of spending data is not easy, and it will be a process of continuous improvement, where agencies report, are transparent about their weaknesses, and work to improve subsequent rounds of reporting.
To that end, in September 2016 OMB created the Data Standards Committee to make sure that the standards agencies use to report spending data remain clear over time, and that adjustments are made as needed. While an encouraging step, the proceedings and decisions of the committee have thus far not been made available to the public. We recommended that OMB make them available to the public.
To learn more, check out our full reports, or listen to Chris Mihm and Paula Rascona, leaders of our recent DATA Act work, discuss what they found: