DATA Act:

Progress Made in Initial Implementation but Challenges Must be Addressed as Efforts Proceed

GAO-15-752T: Published: Jul 29, 2015. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2015.

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What GAO Found

Since the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) became law in May 2014, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) have taken significant steps towards implementing key provisions. These steps include the release of 27 data standards, draft technical documentation, and implementation guidance to help federal agencies meet their responsibilities under the act. However, given the complexity and government-wide scale of activities required by the DATA Act, much more remains to be done.

Data standards. OMB and Treasury have proposed standardizing 57 data elements for reporting under the act. They released 15 elements on May 8, 2015, a year after the passage of the act, and have since released 12 more. Eight of the first 15 were new elements required under the DATA Act; the balance were required under the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. GAO identified several issues that may impact the quality and ability to aggregate federal spending data. For example, GAO found: (1) the data standards may not provide a complete picture of spending by program unless OMB accelerates its efforts to produce an inventory of federal programs as required under the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA); (2) the data standards and elements may not yet represent all that are necessary to fully capture and reliably report on federal spending; and (3) the draft technical specifications GAO reviewed may result in the reporting of inconsistent information. GAO shared its observations with officials who are considering revisions and updating their technical documentation.

Governance and stakeholder engagement. OMB and Treasury have made progress in initial implementation activities by developing structures for project management and data governance as well as for obtaining stakeholder input. However, GAO found that additional effort to address the whole lifecycle of standards development will be needed to ensure that the integrity of data standards is maintained over time. Establishing these policies and procedures now could provide an opportunity for OMB and Treasury to build on existing efforts to reach out to stakeholders by taking steps to foster effective two-way communication to help ensure that the concerns of interested parties are responded to and addressed as appropriate on an ongoing and timely basis.

Recovery Operations Center (ROC). GAO's review of the potential transfer of the ROC's assets found that Treasury does not plan to assume these assets because of a number of impediments. Instead, Treasury has focused on facilitating information sharing between the ROC and Treasury's Do Not Pay initiative, which assists agencies in preventing improper payments. GAO has ongoing work on this issue and plans to issue a report later this year.

Reporting burden pilot. The DATA Act requires OMB to establish a 2-year pilot program to develop recommendations for reducing reporting burden for recipients of federal awards. The pilot was launched this May with the initiation of a national dialogue on reducing reporting burden, building of an online repository of common grants-related data elements, and addition of grants-related resources on Grants.gov. GAO also has ongoing work focusing on this pilot.

Why GAO Did This Study

The DATA Act directs OMB and Treasury to establish government-wide data standards by May 2015. The act also requires agencies to begin reporting financial spending data using these standards by May 2017 and to post spending data in machine- readable formats by May 2018. This statement is part of a series of products that GAO will provide the Congress as the DATA Act is implemented.

This statement discusses four DATA Act implementation areas to date: (1) establishment of government-wide data standards; (2) OMB and Treasury's effort to establish a governance structure and obtain stakeholder input; (3) the status of the potential transfer of the ROC's assets to Treasury; and (4) the pilot program to reduce reporting burden. GAO reviewed the first 15 data elements finalized under the act; analyzed key documents, technical specifications and applicable guidance; interviewed OMB, Treasury, HHS, and other staff as well as officials from organizations representing non-federal stakeholders; and reviewed literature.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that OMB accelerate efforts to merge DATA Act purposes with the production of a federal program inventory under GPRAMA, and that OMB and Treasury (1) establish policies and processes for a governance structure to maintain the integrity of data standards over time and (2) enhance policies and procedures to provide for ongoing and effective two-way dialogue with stakeholders. OMB staff, Treasury officials, and others provided technical comments which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm, 202-512-6806, mihmj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: OMB staff stated that they expect to issue new guidance on the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act by the end of 2017. According to these staff, OMB expects that, within a year of issuing the new guidance, they will be able to move forward with plans to resume implementation of the federal program inventory. In October 2017, OMB staff told us they believe there are opportunities to leverage the DATA Act taxonomy in service to the goals of GPRAMA and they continue to work with their performance management colleagues on this effort. However, they said no formal progress has been made to identify programs for the purposes of DATA Act reporting.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federal program spending data are provided to the public in a transparent, useful, and timely manner, the Director of OMB should accelerate efforts to determine how best to merge DATA Act purposes and requirements with the GPRAMA requirement to produce a federal program inventory.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: OMB and Treasury have taken some initial steps to build a data governance structure standardizing data elements and definitions, conducting interviews with key stakeholders and developing a set of recommendations for decision-making authority. In September 2016, OMB and Treasury established a Data Standards Committee (DSC) that is responsible for advising OMB and Treasury, and providing recommendations on DATA Act data standards to the Executive Steering Committee (ESC) -- the decision making body regarding DATA Act and other data standards. According to OMB staff, the DSC meets on a monthly basis, but has not yet provided recommendations to OMB or to the ESC. OMB staff told us in October 2017 that, in accordance with their broader data governance mandates and overall transparency efforts, they are reviewing opportunities to incorporate and leverage other mandates and existing governance structures. As part of our ongoing feedback with OMB, we shared 5 key practices that we believe should inform their plans to develop a data governance framework moving forward.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the integrity of data standards is maintained over time, the Director of OMB, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Treasury, should establish a set of clear policies and processes for developing and maintaining data standards that are consistent with leading practices for data governance.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: OMB and Treasury have taken a number of steps to engage with federal and nonfederal stakeholders including presentations at conferences, roundtable discussions, monthly stakeholder calls, and weekly calls with agency DATA Act implementation staff. These outreach efforts are intended to provide information on new implementation initiatives as well as to address stakeholder concerns. OMB and Treasury have also added new features to the Federal Transparency GitHub site to facilitate two-way stakeholder communication related to the development and testing of agency data submission to the Treasury broker. For example, Treasury is using JIRA and on-line software development tools to provide responses to stakeholder questions and comments related to the development of the Treasury broker.

    Recommendation: To ensure that interested parties' concerns are addressed as implementation efforts continue, the Director of OMB, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Treasury, should build on existing efforts and put in place policies and procedures to foster ongoing and effective two - way dialogue with stakeholders including timely and substantive responses to feedback received on the Federal Spending Transparency GitHub website.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

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