DATA Act:

OMB, Treasury, and Agencies Need to Improve Completeness and Accuracy of Spending Data and Disclose Limitations

GAO-18-138: Published: Nov 8, 2017. Publicly Released: Nov 8, 2017.

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Contact:

J. Christopher Mihm
(202) 512-6806
MihmJ@gao.gov

 

Paula M. Rascona
(202) 512-9816
RasconaP@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
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The DATA Act called on federal agencies to increase the transparency of roughly $3.7 trillion in annual spending by improving the quality of data available to Congress, federal managers, and the public.

We found that budget data were largely consistent with agency records; however, only between 0 to 1 percent of award records (e.g., grants, contracts, and loans) were fully consistent. Additionally, some submissions were incomplete and agencies applied data standards differently. OMB and Treasury agreed with our six recommendations to clarify guidance, help ensure data submissions are complete, and disclose data quality issues.

Example of How Two Federal Agencies Can Report Different Locations—or "Primary Place of Performance"—for Where Federal Dollars Were Spent

One agency reported the company's location for

One agency reported the company's location for "Primary Place of Performance," while the other reported the delivery address.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

J. Christopher Mihm
(202) 512-6806
MihmJ@gao.gov

 

Paula M. Rascona
(202) 512-9816
RasconaP@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

A total of 78 federal agencies, including all 24 Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act agencies, submitted data by May 2017, as required by the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). However, GAO identified issues and challenges with the completeness and accuracy of the data submitted, use of data elements, and presentation of the data on Beta.USAspending.gov.

Completeness: Awards for 160 financial assistance programs with estimated annual spending of $80.8 billion were omitted from the data for the second quarter of fiscal year 2017. Also, 13 agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Agriculture, submitted the file intended to link budgetary and award information without providing any data. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provided technical assistance to help agencies determine whether they are required to report under the act, but not all agencies had made that determination by the May 2017 reporting deadline. As a result of these issues, OMB and the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) cannot reasonably assure that subsequent data submissions will be complete.

Accuracy: Based on a projectable sample representing approximately 94 percent of all records in Beta.USAspending.gov, GAO found that data accuracy—measured as consistency between reported data and authoritative agency sources—differed sharply between budgetary and award records. GAO estimates with 95 percent confidence that between 56 to 75 percent of the newly-required budgetary records were fully consistent with agency sources. In contrast, GAO estimates that only between 0 to 1 percent of award records were fully consistent. This represents a decrease in consistency from what GAO reported in 2014, when GAO estimated that between 2 to 7 percent of award records were fully consistent. A record was considered “fully consistent” if the information it contained matched agency sources for every applicable data element.

Use: GAO also identified challenges in the implementation and use of two data elements— Primary Place of Performance and Award Description —that are particularly important to achieving the DATA Act's transparency goals. GAO found that agencies differ in how they interpret and apply OMB's definitions for these data elements, raising concerns regarding data consistency and comparability. These findings underscore the need for clarified guidance and improved data governance.

Presentation: Treasury provides feedback mechanisms to users on Beta.USAspending.gov, and plans to address known website search functionality issues. However, Treasury does not sufficiently disclose known limitations affecting data quality. The website is under continuing development and disclosing limitations will be essential in the fall of 2017 when, according to Treasury, the previous version of USAspending.gov will be retired and the new version becomes the sole available source of certified agency data submitted under the DATA Act.

Why GAO Did This Study

The DATA Act requires agencies to increase the types and transparency of over $3.7 trillion in annual federal spending data, and requires OMB and Treasury to establish data standards to enable the reporting and tracking of agency spending. Consistent with GAO's mandate under the act, this assessment is GAO's first review of the quality of the data collected under the act that agencies reported beginning in May 2017 and made available through Beta.USAspending.gov, a website currently under development by Treasury.

Specifically, this report examines (1) the completeness, timeliness, accuracy and quality of the data and use of data standards; and (2) the consistency of the Beta.USAspending.gov website with selected standards for federal websites. GAO analyzed a sample of second quarter fiscal year 2017 data, projectable to the 24 CFO Act agencies, from a database that populates Beta.USAspending.gov and traced them back to agency source records. GAO also compared the data and functionality of this website with selected federal website standards.

What GAO Recommends

GAO makes two recommendations to OMB regarding technical assistance and clarifying guidance to help ensure agencies fully comply with DATA Act requirements and report data completely and accurately; and four recommendations to Treasury, including disclosing known data quality issues on its website. OMB and Treasury generally agreed with our recommendations.

For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202) 512-6806 or MihmJ@gao.gov, and Paula M. Rascona at (202) 512-9816 or RasconaP@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: According to OMB staff, they have provided technical assistance to help agencies make their own determinations and provided GAO documentation showing the agencies required to report and a summary of agency submissions for one quarter. However, OMB still needs to take action on monitoring quarterly agency submissions to help ensure that all agencies report complete and consistent data as required.

    Recommendation: The Director of OMB should continue to provide ongoing technical assistance that significantly contributes to agencies making their own determinations about their DATA Act reporting requirements and monitor agency submissions. (Recommendation 1)

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

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In October 2018, OMB staff stated that OMB Memorandum M-18-16 clarified how agencies should report Primary Place of Performance. However, we believe that additional clarification is needed--as well as clear communication of these changes--in order to ensure consistent reporting by federal agencies. The memorandum also includes a requirement for agencies to develop a data quality plan and review those plans every three years. According to OMB staff, these steps will establish monitoring mechanisms and ensure consistent application and compliance with DATA Act standards. GAO will continue to monitor this as agency data quality plans are issued.

    Recommendation: The Director of OMB should clarify and align existing guidance regarding the appropriate definitions agencies should use to collect and report on Primary Place of Performance and establish monitoring mechanisms to foster consistent application and compliance. (Recommendation 2)

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

  3. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In July 2018, a senior Treasury official stated that the department has effective "agile" processes in place for determining whether required agencies are submitting spending data and is operating as designed. However, Treasury has not yet provided any documentation of the processes or actions taken. Treasury needs to ensure that its processes are operating as intended so it can assure that agencies are submitting spending data as appropriate.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should reasonably assure that the process for determining whether required agencies are submitting spending data is in place and operating as designed. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  4. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In July 2018, a senior Treasury official stated that Treasury has ongoing monitoring controls to help ensure the completeness and accuracy of agency submissions. Treasury also referenced the new requirements in OMB's June 2018 changes to Circular A-136 as providing supplemental tools for monitoring the accuracy of data submissions. However, Treasury has not provided documentation of the controls in place or actions taken. Once developed, Treasury needs to expeditiously implement these plans so that they can help to ensure the completeness and accuracy of agency submissions.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should reasonably assure that ongoing monitoring controls to help ensure the completeness and accuracy of agency submissions are designed, implemented, and operating as designed. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  5. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of September 2018, Treasury has made progress by disclosing limitations related to DOD reporting delays and unreported spending, among other things. However, Treasury could do more to disclose limitations on the USAspending.gov website, such as explaining why there is no award information displayed for some spending data. Treasury officials previously told us they were looking for a long term solution for disclosing data quality issues and limitations.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should disclose known data quality issues and limitations on the new USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2017, Treasury relabeled all SAO qualification statements from "data.yml" to "Quarterly Assurance Statement" and included additional information on the "About" page regarding the purpose and use of SAO certifications. As a result, the quarterly SAO certifications and qualification statements are more accessible and evident to users of the new USAspending.gov.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should make the known data limitations found in Senior Accountable Official certifications more accessible and evident to users of the new USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

 

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