Open Data

Treasury official calls for quick Data Act demos

Treasury official Dick Gregg is in charge of implementing the recently enacted Data Act.

The three-year schedule to implement the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, a measure that puts federal financial data on a single, machine-readable standard and requires its publication to the public online, might be too ambitious, said Dick Gregg, fiscal assistant secretary of the Treasury and the executive in charge of implementing the law.

"It will be difficult and maybe impossible in some areas to hit all the timelines," Gregg said on May 20 at the Federal Financial Management Conference in Washington, D.C., before an audience of government accountants and financial managers who will be on the front lines of implementing the changes required under the Data Act.

The challenge is for Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget to come up with a standard for publishing financial data, then convert federal financial management systems to that standard. There was no money included in the law to finance the effort, but agencies will surely need some resources to implement changes.

"I'm not sure what the approach of OMB will be when agencies make requests," Gregg said. "There will be some costs. It's important to work together to figure out how to minimize the cost of doing this." One way is to leverage gains made in the Treasury's own internal goal of improving financial transparency through the management of the USASpending.gov website, which recently moved to Treasury from OMB as part of the fiscal 2014 budget.

The low-cost approach means there won't be any massive new systems built to accommodate the new law. Instead, Gregg is looking to a "data-centric" approach that tags financial data so it can be used by multiple systems. In addition, Gregg wants to move fast on testing out approaches to implementing the law to see what works. He wants to see demonstration pilots up and running in "weeks and months," Gregg said, "to see if they will help us lead the way."

The shift to a federal-first approach to agency financial management could help streamline the process, Gregg pointed out. "Shared services is a force multiplier," Gregg said, because consolidation of financial management at the four providers means that agencies will be able to outsource some of their compliance. "The sooner we can move more agencies into shared services, the easier it's going to be for them to implement the Data Act," Gregg said.

The financial management community will reap the benefits as well, Gregg said. The new emphasis on standardization means that chief financial officers can shift from systems implementation and operation to the more interesting and rewarding work of managing programs.

While the Data Act was billed by its congressional backers as a way to improve transparency and oversight of federal spending, it is also potentially a valuable tool for federal executives, said Christina Ho, the Treasury official charged with developing the ground game for agencies to implement the measure.

The pitch to agencies is that with successful implementation of the Data Act, the practice of carrying out time-consuming data calls to answer questions from executives, OMB, and oversight bodies will be a thing of the past. "I think that we definitely need agencies ... not to make assumptions that this is going to be a huge burden," Ho said. "If we do this right and build a data-centric approach, in the future there won't be data calls. People can get the answer themselves."

"Not every agency has access to their own data in a way that is integrated and meaningful. That impedes the ability of executives to make decisions that are mission-focused and program focused," Ho said. The Data Act doesn't just help inform citizens, it helps inform executives, she said.

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