Congress

Can federal agencies hit their Data Act deadlines?

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The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, an open government law that tasks agencies with unifying financial reporting in public, standardized, machine-readable format on the USASpending.gov website, is putting pressure on agencies to get their data in order.

Under the 2014 law, the 24 CFO Act agencies have until May of 2017 to publish their spending data. At an April 19 hearing of two subcommittees of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, members wanted to know if the government would hit the deadline.

"The short answer is yes," said David Lebryk, the official leading Data Act implementation at the Treasury Department. But he allowed that the full story "is a little bit more complicated."

To get a clearer picture of the challenges they are facing, 18 of the 24 covered agencies have submitted data to an open source "sandbox" system hosted by Treasury that shows agencies how well their data performs in a Data Act-compliant environment.

Dave Mader, controller at the Office of Management and Budget, said no agency yet had warned that they would not meet the May 2017 deadline. He said he expected to have a clearer picture of which agencies would make it and which might not by July or August.

"I don't think anyone is deliberately slow-rolling us in the implementation," Mader said. "I think there are challenges and I think that agencies, depending on their size and complexity, are starting to realize the lift that they have between now and next January," when they report the second-quarter data that will end up being published in May 2017.

As the Government Accountability Office reported, the government faces challenges in making sure that all agencies have a common understanding of the 57 common data elements to be used in financial reporting under the law.

GAO's Michelle Sager said that while agencies think they may be implementing data standards correctly, once cross-agency data is examined it can become clear that "what you thought was a shared understanding of a definition upon implementation it then becomes clear that that shared understanding may have been different given the breadth of the federal government."

Mader also noted that one of the key challenges of the Data Act, linking financial management systems and award systems, is made simpler because there are just "three predominant software providers for financial management" in the federal government. All are in the process of working on patches to support the Data Act, and moving award data into financial systems is a critical milestone in that effort.

The Obama administration requested $55 million governmentwide for Data Act implementation. The budget request was $92 million for 2016, of which just $30.7 million was awarded. Some members wondered if the effort was fully resourced.

"It's a challenge but we haven't let anyone off the hook," Mader said.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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