Controller Danny Werfel: It does not matter 'how awesomely relevant this information is if it lacks reliability.'
USASpending.gov provides a wide range of agency spending data, but serious accuracy problems have been found. As OMB Controller Danny Werfel noted when promising improvements, 'It doesn’t matter how great your charts are or how awesomely relevant this information is if it lacks reliability.'
Just days after a watchdog found that agencies had misreported more than $1.55 trillion on USASpending.gov, a senior Office of Management and Budget official pledged to improve the numbers in the online portal that shows how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Speaking at AGA’s National Leadership Conference on Feb. 13, Danny Werfel, controller at OMB, spoke of data transparency as a major priority for both his agency and Congress, and dealing with the lack of standardization across government.
"We’re going to start at OMB, on the priority of complete and reliable data on USASpending," he said. As the "the most prominent touchpoint" between the public and government financial information, Werfel stressed, the portal needs to have accurate, dependable information.
"It’s like…Maslow’s hierarchy and children: Everything starts with health," he said. "You want your children to be healthy, and everything after that is a bonus. In financial management, I feel like that with reliability – you want to start with sound information. It doesn’t matter how great your charts are or how awesomely relevant this information is if it lacks reliability, because then you’ve done exponential damage by sharing it and leading to decisions, information and views that aren’t grounded in a sound foundation."
OMB will "in the near term" issue guidance to drive agencies toward internal control reviews around the reliability of their USASpending reporting, Werfel said. That data should be compared to information currently in audited federal financial management systems or other trusted sources.
"Right now, across government we can’t do that in a consistent way," he said. "We have to do that very manually; it’s not something that comes easy to agencies, so we’re working on figuring out how to create that reconciliation."
Standardization should help, Werfel noted, but he added that it needs to be done right. "My question has always been, where do we start? I just don’t want to standardize for the sake of standardization. I don’t want to standardize one piece if the return on investment is 20 years away; I’d rather standardize where there’s a more immediate return."
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