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 "Primary Place of Performance," while the other reported the delivery address.
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.
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.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Office of Management and Budget||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)|
|Office of Management and Budget||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)|
|Department of the Treasury||
Priority Rec.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)
|Department of the Treasury||
Priority Rec.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)
|Department of the Treasury||
Priority Rec.The Secretary of the Treasury should disclose known data quality issues and limitations on the new USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 5)
|Department of the Treasury||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)|