The Hill

DATA Act gains Senate ally

Mark Warner

Sen. Mark Warner is pitching the DATA Act as an essential piece of infrastructure to support a rational accounting of federal spending. (FCW photo)

A bill to standardize and structure government spending data, a version of which has already moved through committee in the Republican-led House, is getting an assist from a prominent Democrat.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) held a hearing of the Budget and Government Performance Task Force on Sept. 18, to discuss problems with existing financial data reporting on USASpending.gov and build support for the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

Warner is pitching the DATA Act as an essential piece of infrastructure to support a rational accounting of federal spending, and a first step in reducing waste and duplication. The bill would move control of the USASpending.gov database from the Office of Management and Budget to the Treasury, and require spending data to be structured on a uniform basis, using metadata to make the information easy to extract, sort and analyze.

Against the backdrop of ongoing budget battles and a looming government shutdown, Warner touted data transparency as something everyone could support regardless of their view on the optimal size and scope of the federal enterprise. The House bill is sponsored by California Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"Unless we develop better data and processes to weed out ineffective programs, we'll never have the efficient structure that will support our long-term budget goals whatever that top line number might be," Warner said.

Witnesses at the task force hearing pointed out continuing problems with data supplied by agencies to the USASpending.gov database.

"Our data quality analysis of the assistance data in USASpending.gov shows that it is deteriorating by the year," said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government advocacy organization. "In 2011, over $900 billion of the direct assistance data in USASpending.gov was misreported. But these data sets are not only full of bad data; they are badly designed. A lack of standardization makes it difficult to conduct this type of quality analysis in the first place and contributes to agencies' and recipients' inability to report accurate, timely and complete data about their spending.".

The $350 billion the federal government pays annually in salaries is not included in USASpending.gov, Lee noted, making it impossible to use these numbers to compare overall agency outlays.

The lack of standardized identifiers for contractors and grantees makes it a challenge for auditors, oversight committees in Congress, and transparency groups to track awards to individual companies across agencies, noted Stanley Czerwinski, director for strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office.

"The lack of consistent data structures prevents easy aggregation of data at the government-wide level, hampering the ability to link existing financial, award, and procurement systems. It also increases the cost of government transactions and the burden on federal fund recipients," Czerwinski said.

Another problem is that the current system of reporting requires agencies and grantees to report spending data to multiple authorities, wasting time and increasing opportunities for error, Czerwinski told the task force.

This point was picked up by Gerald Kane, assistant vice president for research administration at the University of Virginia. "One key way to improve invoicing and reporting efficiency across federal agencies would be to  allow universities and other federal awardees to upload all of the data electronically at one time for multiple awards. This would save many staff hours," Kane said.

Warner's task force doesn't have jurisdiction over the DATA Act. The bill is expected to be considered in October by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. On the House side, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said the Issa bill will move to the floor after it is scored by the Congressional Budget Office.

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