OMB issues new spending-data directive to agencies

A memorandum puts some additional controls on contracting data, but transparency advocates say it falls far short of a possible legislative remedy.

contract signing

Agencies have some new rules to follow in reporting data about contract awards.

Federal agencies are being directed by the Office of Management and Budget to improve the quality of their public-facing financial data, in a move that mirrors one of the key provisions of a data transparency bill currently before Congress.

OMB is looking to improve the accuracy and utility of the financial data on the USASpending.gov website. The change requires agencies to establish unique identification numbers for financial awards and to check the accuracy of spending information against an official record of agency accounts. The policy update was announced in a June 12 memorandum from deputy controller Norman Dong to agency chief financial officers.

Agencies have until October of this year to come up with Federal Award Identification Numbers (FAIN) to attach to individual awards. This number is intended to stay constant for the duration of the award, to make it simpler to report and track sub-awards. Agencies are working on the same deadline to come up with a way of validating data submitted to USASpending.gov. They must be able to attest to a particular level of accuracy (unspecified in the memo) by November 15, 2014.

"Because existing reporting models are not directly tied to agency financial systems at the award level, it is imperative that each agency have an internal control and accountability structure in place to ensure that the data reported is accurate and complete," the memo states.

The bipartisan Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act of 2013, which was recently introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate, links reporting to financial systems at the award level. The DATA Act also establishes unique identifiers for award recipients, to track spending across individual agencies, and differentiates spending on personnel and contracts. Additionally, it moves oversight of USASpending.gov from OMB to the Treasury – a move that is contained in the Obama administration's FY2014 budget proposal.

Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, which backs the DATA Act, said the OMB memorandum will help, but it falls far short of the DATA Act. The OMB move doesn't allow for the tracking of federal awards across agencies, he said, and it only applies to awards, not procurement. "This seems to be the best that OMB can do without having a statutory framework," he said.

The memo directs agencies to report their data validation to OMB as part of a required annual assurance statement, but it's not clear whether those reports would be public. "The memo offers no assurances that anyone other than OMB would know what the data quality is," said, Drew Vogel, a software developer at the Sunlight Foundation, which is also backing the DATA Act.

The memo states that the methodology and reporting requirements "will inform ongoing policy discussions to develop a future vision for Federal spending transparency," suggesting that the current directive is a placeholder until a more comprehensive policy is released.

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