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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Management and Budget
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
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.
Open
In the summer of 2020, OMB convened an internal working group to create a long-term strategy for developing a comprehensive inventory that would include robust connections across budget formulation, execution, and performance data across federal agencies. In December 2020, OMB issued a memo to agency budget directors, chief financial officers, and performance improvement officers launching an exploratory pilot as an interim step toward achieving this long-term goal. We will continue to monitor this effort and assess the extent to which it addresses our recommendation.
Office of Management and Budget
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
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.
Closed - Implemented
After consulting with Treasury and other federal agencies, OMB issued guidance in 2019 (M-19-16, "Centralized Mission Support Capabilities for the Federal Government") that set out key aspects of the governance process for developing and maintaining interagency data standards under the shared services cross agency priority goal. In July 2020, OMB provided additional clarification on how the data standards established under the DATA Act would be governed within the broader governance structure for shared services described in M-19-16. Among the features that are consistent with leading practices for data governance are processes for approving new data standards for the reporting spending data; obtaining input from stakeholders; and managing and communicating changes to established data standards.
Office of Management and Budget
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
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.
Closed - Implemented
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.

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