Congress

Are agencies ready for the Data Act?

Shutterstock image (by Andrii_M): computer binary code. 

Congress wants to make sure agencies are ready to go public with their financial data.

For the first time ever, thanks to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, federal agencies will publish appropriations and spending information in standardized, machine-readable form. Agencies must publish the data on the USASpending.gov website by the May 2017 deadline, as mandated by the recent law..

The Data Act "holds promise of providing unprecedented insight into federal spending," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) at a Dec. 8 hearing of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "We're now five months away from delivering on that promise, and there are serious signs that the agency implementation is lagging behind."

In July, the Government Accountability Office reported that Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget were lagging in keeping tabs on implementation plans..

The challenges noted in agencies' updated implementation plans "indicated some agencies are at risk of not meeting the May 2017 reporting deadline," said Paula Rascona, director of financial management and assurance at GAO.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) added that Congress has not done all it can to make implementation as seamless as possible, noting that Congress has provided only $30.7 million of the $300 million needed between fiscal years 2014 and 2018 for implementation, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office.

Even with these challenges, Dave Mader, controller at the Office of Management and Budget, pointed to the progress made by OMB and Treasury since an April 2016 hearing, and expressed confidence that citizens will be able to go online and check federal spending information by the deadline.

"For the vast majority of the CFO Act agencies, who represent in excess of 90 percent of the government-wide spend, we're going to be able to see that in May [2017]," he said, adding that the Small Business Administration has been the "proof of concept" that the Data Act broker works.

Connolly asked Mader if the Department of Defense, which boasts the government's largest discretionary budget, might struggle to meet all Data Act requirements by May.

Mader responded that the Pentagon will report their full appropriation, but added, "what they're going to be deficient in is actually making some of these quality assurance linkages between our financial system and our management systems."

While he supported Mader's confidence, David Lebyrk, the official leading Data Act implementation at the Treasury Department, cautioned that success will be measured by what comes after the first submission.

"While much attention has been paid to the May deadline, May is just the beginning," he said.

Hudson Hollister, who heads the Data Transparency Coalition and who helped draft the Data Act legislation as an aide to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), told FCW that he did not expect the first round of submissions to be perfect, but that he was "confident that all of them are going to report something, and the formatting will be consistent enough where we will have a single, solid data set… that we'll be able to work on and improve."

With the looming change in administration, Rascona testified, "the transition presents a threat to the Data Act implementation efforts of shifting priorities or a loss of momentum."

Meadows made clear, however, that Data Act implementation "is not only a priority now, but will be a priority for the 115th Congress" beyond meeting the May 2017 deadline.

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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