Open Data

As big deadline hits, lawmakers warn on long-term risks to Data Act

Shutterstock image: government access keyboard. 

As agencies are wrapping up submissions for the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act’s first deadline, transparency advocates and lawmakers are framing the milestone date more as a starting point.

Thanks to the open government law passed in 2014, May 9 represents the first submission deadline for agencies to report their annual federal spending in a standardized, machine-readable way to the USASpending.gov website.

While the Government Accountability Office reported in April that five agencies -- the Departments of Defense, Housing and Urban Development, the Interior and Veterans Affairs, along with the Environmental Protection Agency -- would not “fully meet” the requirements in advance of the May 9 deadline, all 24 CFO Act agencies managed to submit something.

According to those closest to the Data Act, incomplete reporting the first go-round was expected and is not a cause for concern.

In an email to FCW, Data Coalition Executive Director Hudson Hollister deemed the effort to date to be a successful completion of “the first phase of a very challenging project.”

That early success, however, does not mean oversight -- from Congress, the oversight bodies, as well as the White House -- is going anywhere.

In letters to the heads of the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, six members of the House Oversight Committee -- Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) -- raised concerns about potential risks facing agencies’ successful implementation and about several unfulfilled GAO recommendations.

“While there is strong reason to be optimistic that the Data Act can and will achieve its goals, there are ongoing implementation challenges that threaten its success,” the legislators wrote, citing “widespread and longstanding financial management issues” across government as significant long-term risks.

According to the lawmakers' letters, 11 of the 16 large agencies, in readiness reviews conducted by their respective inspectors general, were found to have “had technology issues, including challenges with developing and submitting required files, integrating multiple existing and disparate financial and management systems, or needing to install new systems or modify existing systems to implement the Data Act” as of Jan. 31.

They added that these challenges, as well as other issues, “have already had an effect on agency readiness.”

The lawmakers called on Treasury and OMB to address five outstanding GAO recommendations -- one from January 2016, three from July 2016 and another from April 2017.

The recommendations call for OMB and Treasury to provide agencies with additional guidance to handle data-quality issues, to establish a set of policies that follow best practices for developing and maintaining data standards and to create a federal program inventory of Data Act purposes and requirements. 

The recommendations also direct OMB and Treasury to develop processes to determine the complete population of agencies required to report spending data and to measure agencies’ compliance with oversight reviews and Data Act requirements.

The lawmakers requested an update from OMB and Treasury by May 22 that details progress in implementing GAO’s recommendations.

Hollister commended the continued oversight of the Data Act’s implementation, adding, “there is still work that needs to be done.”

“It is crucial that the technical kinks are ironed out to ensure that the law is fully implemented, and the benefits can be fully realized,” he said.

In addition to the members of Congress, the Data Act also has champions in the White House --  namely OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and Matt Lira, the special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives and member of the new Office of American Innovation.

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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