VA's legacy systems aren't ready for the Data Act

A just-released oversight report reveals that the legacy systems at the Department of Veterans Affairs aren't ready to support many Data Act requirements.

Shutterstock image (by Robert Adrian Hillman): Abstract design for broken code.
 

A just-released oversight report reveals that legacy systems at the Department of Veterans Affairs aren't ready to support many Data Act requirements.

According to the report, dated November 2016 but released on Aug. 8, there are serious limitations posed by the department's legacy systems that challenge financial reporting requirements mandated by the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

VA officials told auditors that the department's 25-year-old Financial Management System, its core system for financial accounting, will only achieve partial Data Act compliance.

Specifically, VA officials that while they could submit appropriations account information in full, they would be "challenged" to submit details on program activity and they would be largely unable to submit financial award detail.

The FMS, VA's financial management system "requires extensive manipulations, journal entries, manual processes, and reconciliations in order for VA to produce a set of auditable financial statements," the report states.

Auditors noted that VA does not have an automated grants management system, and procurement and award identifiers are not stored in FMS.

Rather than upgrading its own outdated systems, VA is instead directing its modernization resources toward transitioning to a shared services provider, according to the report.

"As a result, VA is not seeking other solutions or modifications to outdated systems in order to fully comply with the DATA Act," the report states.

Another challenge facing the department's ability to comply with the transparency law is that -- as of the Aug. 31, 2016 end date of OIG's fieldwork -- the department had not conducted complete inventories of agency data, business process and systems.

VA's program management office requested the department's components to perform such inventories in July 2015 in preparation for the Data Act.

Additionally, the office responsible for submitting VA's financial data told auditors it does not have sufficient staffing to validate the completeness and accuracy of crosswalks and other documentation.

Auditors also reported that VA was "unable to assess the accuracy of information submitted" by departmental components.

OIG made 17 recommendations in total, including the coordination with a shared service provide to expand reporting capabilities, improving internal controls, assessing business processes, providing resources for data storage and improve auditability of data, as well as better and more timely communication both within and outside of VA.

VA's response, dated May 19, concurred with all of the recommendations, and pointed out that one -- the establishment of a Data Act working group to improve communication and accountability of those in charge of submitting and documenting financial data -- had been completed in March.

While agencies have pointed to technical impediments as obstacles to achieving full compliance with the Data Act, Data Coalition Policy Director Christian Hoehner said that "huge strides" were made in the lead-up to the May submission deadline.

And while agencies’ outdated systems do present technical challenges, Hoehner noted that “a lot of the data is coming from shared services.”

Hoehner said that for the upcoming mid-August reporting deadlines, agencies enjoy the benefit of having gone through the reporting process before to work out initial bugs.

Just as important to future success, Hoehner added, is continued guidance from the Department of Treasury, as well as oversight from Congress and agency watchdogs.

By the fall, Treasury plans to fully transition from the legacy usaspending.gov website to the new, more interactive beta site stood up to handle the first round of machine-readable data.

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