The DATA Act Turns 2

Posted on May 09, 2016
The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, known as the DATA Act, is 2 years old today. This law is supposed to make it easier to get reliable, standardized information on federal spending. Today’s WatchBlog explores what we’ve found in the first 2 years of this act’s implementation. Why standardize? Without government-wide data standards for financial reporting, it’s harder to measure the cost and magnitude of federal spending. It’s also more difficult for agencies to share data with each other to improve decision making and oversight. The DATA Act requires the federal government to set government-wide data standards. Federal agencies have until next May to get their financial data in line with those standards. Apples to oranges? To make it easier to compare different federal agencies’ financial information, the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of the Treasury developed standardized definitions for data elements and drafted guidance on how to use them. For example, one data element is “Award Type.” The definition prompts agencies to provide a description and a standard code that clearly distinguishes the type of contract, grant, or loan being reported. However, these definitions may not actually provide apples-to-apples information on spending. For example, the definition for “Primary Place of Performance” still leaves room for alternate interpretations that could result in agencies reporting this information differently. All of the places listed in the picture—the town hall, the mileage marker near a construction site, the state capitol, the contractor’s worksite, and the contractor’s business address—could meet the definition provided. Example of Data Element Definitions That Could Be Interpreted in a Variety of Ways                                                         (Excerpted from GAO-16-261)              Changing guidance Guidance on the definitions can help agencies with their reporting—if that guidance is clear and timely. Treasury has issued several versions of the technical guidance, but each iteration results in revisions that delay a final version and may delay full implementation of the act. We found that agencies identified changing guidance, along with competing priorities and a lack of resources, as significant challenges to reporting federal spending data as required by May 2017. Reducing reporting burden In addition to making it easier to get reliable information on federal spending, the DATA Act also aimed to reduce the reporting burden for those who receive federal dollars. OMB partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services and the General Services Administration to implement a 2-year pilot focused on reducing reporting burden for grantees and contractors. For more on our DATA Act findings, read our recent testimony or watch it below (our statement starts at 52:48), and check out our recommendations to address DATA Act challenges.

Data Act: Monitoring Implementation Progress