Government data is 'weird'
- By Zach Noble
- Jan 20, 2016
For agencies, getting financial data squared away to comply with the Data Act can be tough. At the Association of Government Accountants' Financial Systems Summit on Jan. 19, agency leaders talked through the tough and rewarding work they're facing in implementing the law.
"I'm really nervous about some of the reporting that we're going to have to do, but also from the reconciliation standpoint," said Tim Gribben, deputy chief financial officer at the Small Business Administration.
In the pursuit of financial transparency, the Data Act calls for government spending to be tracked thoroughly in standardized, web-accessible forms, and it's an exercise that can benefit agencies; Gribben has sung the praises of Data Act-powered visualizations.
But, "no matter how much you try to make it simple and accessible to the public…government data is weird," as Gribben put it. He said he feared a flood of Freedom of Information Act requests from a confused public, and repeated a concern he'd expressed in October 2015.
"We don't exactly know what we're reconciling [our financial data] to, and that's part of the concern," he said.
Justice Department finance director Melinda Morgan pointed out that linking all spending data will entail more rigorous accuracy from contracting officers.
"For once they actually have to certify that the data is really accurate," she said. "Not that they weren't certifying before, but it has a different rank now."
Figuring out the governance structure of data certification will be a crucial component of any agency's path to success, she said.
In the Justice Department, authorities are being "delegated down" so that the feds who work most closely with data certify said data's accuracy before that data leaves the department, Morgan said.
The work has indisputable value. Like Gribben, Morgan said her agency has been surprised some findings in its data overhaul. For agencies to capitalize on it, they need to treat the work as more than just a compliance exercise or an audit.
"Yeah, we have a clean audit, that's good," Morgan said. But through the Data Act, agencies can and must go deeper than bookkeeping.
"Are we really reporting the right data?" she asked. For Justice in particular, "Are we putting the right resources on the ground based on what the crime statistics are showing?"
Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.