Data Standards Established, but More Complete and Timely Guidance Is Needed to Ensure Effective Implementation

GAO-16-261: Published: Jan 29, 2016. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 2016.


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    GAO-16-261: 2015 DATA Act Infographic

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What GAO Found

As required by the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) issued definitions for 57 federal spending data elements. GAO found that most definitions adhered to leading practices derived from international standards for formulating data definitions. Specifically, 12 of the 57 definitions met all 13 leading practices and none met fewer than 9. However, GAO found several definitions that could lead to inconsistent reporting. For example, as shown in the figure below, the Primary Place of Performance definitions’ inclusion of the word “predominant“ leaves much open to interpretation. Without more interpretive clarification, agencies run the risk of reporting data that cannot be aggregated government-wide.

Example of Data Element Definitions That Could Be Interpreted in a Variety of Ways

Example of Data Element Definitions That Could Be Interpreted in a Variety of Ways

OMB and Treasury addressed some of GAO’s earlier concerns on draft technical guidance for implementing data standards. However, final technical guidance has not been issued, which could impede agency implementation. While OMB and Treasury have released interim versions of technical guidance, they have not yet released final guidance to provide a stable base for agency implementation. They also are developing an intermediary service (“broker”) to standardize and validate agency data submissions. GAO’s review of selected implementation plans found that agencies need the technical guidance and the intermediary service to be finalized before they can develop detailed agency-level plans. If this guidance is not aligned with agency implementation timelines, agencies may delay taking key steps or need to revise existing plans once final technical guidance is released, thereby hindering their ability to meet DATA Act requirements and timelines.

GAO found that the three agencies it reviewed—the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, as well as the Corporation for National and Community Service—have formed internal teams and are inventorying their data and assessing any needed changes to policies, processes, and technology to implement the DATA Act.

Why GAO Did This Study

The DATA Act directed OMB and Treasury to establish government-wide data standards by May 2015 to improve the transparency and quality of federal spending data. Agencies must begin reporting spending data in accordance with these standards by May 2017 and must publicly post spending data in machine-readable formats by May 2018. Consistent with GAO’s mandate under the act, this report is part of a series of products that GAO will provide to the Congress as DATA Act implementation proceeds.

This report (1) identifies steps taken by OMB and Treasury to standardize data element definitions and the extent to which those definitions are consistent with leading practices or face challenges that could affect data quality; (2) reviews efforts by OMB and Treasury to provide agencies with technical implementation guidance and related challenges; and (3) examines the implementation status of selected federal agencies. GAO analyzed data standards against leading practices; reviewed key implementation documents, technical specifications, and applicable guidance; and interviewed staff at OMB, Treasury, and other selected agencies.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that OMB and Treasury (1) provide agencies with clarifications to address potential quality issues with the definitions, and (2) take steps to align the release of finalized technical guidance and the broker service with agency implementation time frames. OMB and Treasury generally concurred with our recommendations.


Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: OMB issued guidance in June 2018 which clarifies reporting requirements for some data element definitions. However, as of October 2019, additional guidance is still needed to clarify how agencies are to report spending data using standardized data element definitions that may be open to more than one interpretation and broadly communicate this information to agencies and the public. Additional guidance is still needed to facilitate agency implementation of certain data definitions (such as Award Description and Primary Place of Performance) to produce consistent and comparable information. Given the challenges previously found with data elements such as Award Description and Primary Place of Performance (see GAO-18-138 and GAO-20-75), GAO has concerns about whether the guidance provides sufficient detail for agencies to consistently interpret and implement the definitions.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies report consistent and comparable data on federal spending, the Director of OMB, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Treasury, should provide agencies with additional guidance to address potential clarity, consistency, or quality issues with the definitions for specific data elements including Award Description and Primary Place of Performance and that they clearly document and communicate these actions to agencies providing this data as well as to end-users.

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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: OMB and Treasury issued the finalized technical guidance (DATA Act Information Model Schema, version 1.0) in April 2016 intended to provide a stable base for agencies and enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors to develop data submission plans. Treasury also released an alpha version of the broker in April 2016 and a beta version of the broker in June 2016. On September 30, 2016, Treasury released its latest version of the broker, which it stated was fully capable of performing the key functions of extracting and validating agency data. Following this release, Treasury continued to release broker updates approximately every 2 weeks. The software patches developed by ERP vendors, intended to help agencies submit required data to the broker, were all released by the end of December 2016. Given the progress made in providing technical guidance and broker updates described above, and since Version 2.0 of the DATA Act Implementation Playbook no longer contains specific timeframes, GAO considers this recommendation substantively met.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federal agencies are able to meet their reporting requirements and timelines, the Director of OMB, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Treasury, should take steps to align the release of finalized technical guidance, including the DATA Act schema and broker, to the implementation time frames specified in the DATA Act Implementation Playbook.

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


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