Senior officials at GAO and OMB agree that clear governance will make or break Data Act reporting, and that guidance will take shape in the next few weeks.
To implement the ambitious effort to track federal spending known as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, agencies need clear guidance, and they should get some in the coming weeks.
"I think the effort got off to a decent start, but more needs to be done," U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said.
Dodaro and David Mader, controller at the Office of Management and Budget, spoke at an April 5 National Academy of Public Administration breakfast on the topic of accountability in government.
The Data Act could prove to be a linchpin for accountability, but it's still unclear how successful the push will be. Under the act, agencies must provide interoperable budget, grant, contract and other data to a federal portal by May 9, 2017.
Mader said the Treasury Department has nearly finalized the schema agencies will use to report their data. "We've already been out sort of shopping it to agencies [and] getting comment," he said. Those data standards, along with OMB's implementation guidance, should be issued within 45 days.
Those are "the two last pieces of information that agencies need for them to finalize their implementation plans," Mader said. "And then...we need to work through the fall and into the winter making the changes to the systems, cleaning up the data and then populating in May of 2017 the successor to USAspending."
"It's very important to get the technical schema out as soon as possible," Dodaro said, "because the agencies can't [finalize] their implementation plans until they know exactly the data format that they're going to technically need to reply in."
In a January report, the Government Accountability Office noted that although OMB had finally defined all 57 data elements required under the act -- many of them quite well -- there was some ambiguity in the definitions. That is a problem Dodaro has raised before.
"I would say we got maybe a B or B-plus," Mader said of the latest GAO report.
Mader said Data Act implementation is part of a broader push to build "a culture of evidence," which would allow agencies to show where their money comes from, how it's used and what comes of the investments.
Dodaro added that implementation hinges on consistency, so the guidance on standards should be as clear as possible. He said the work on definitions would continue well into the future. "We still don't have a definition of federal programs and a comprehensive list of federal programs," he said.
Dodaro also urged Treasury and OMB to develop more permanent Data Act governance that could withstand changes in presidential administrations.
If properly implemented, the Data Act could radically improve government transparency, but for now, "it's got a long way to go," Dodaro said.
Mader agreed, saying, "We have a lot of work left to do between now and May 2017."