Three years after the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act was signed, federal agencies are uploading their financial data to USASpending.gov, an effort to make government operations more transparent to the public.
A beta version of the site, where some of that data is currently accessible, was launched Tuesday by the Treasury Department and Amazon Web Services. Treasury, along with the Office of Management and Budget, is tasked with implementing the DATA Act.
Agencies are still racing to meet the May 9 deadline. Most appear to have reported some data, even if only partially, according to Treasury’s data directory. But missed deadlines and imperfect compliance won’t be a surprise: watchdog reports suggested as much.
For instance, several inspector general audits conducted last year concluded at least three wouldn’t meet the deadline, and another dozen hadn’t said if they would or would not. The Government Accountability Office also concluded OMB and Treasury aren’t using agencies’ internal audits to help gauge their financial transparency audits.
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Treasury may not immediately be able to assess compliance, Treasury’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Accounting Policy and Financial Transparency Christina Ho said at a Data Coalition event last month.
“A lot of things could have happened” after audits predicted agencies would miss the deadline, and “it will take a few days to see whether we’ll get all the data," she said.
Publicly traded organizations are often required to share their financial data. So why is compliance so hard for federal agencies? The problems appear to be cultural and technological, according to transparency experts.
One barrier is that agencies often keep their financial and budget spending separate from the contracts and award spending, and sometimes have multiple databases for each of those categories, Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director of the transparency advocacy group the Data Coalition, told Nextgov.
“In most big agencies, the [chief financial officer] runs the former, and the deputy secretary for management runs the latter,” he said. Until the DATA Act required agencies to report both, “we have never been able to connect those two categories.”
The congressional appropriations process for agencies can also be much more complex to report than the funding received by private-sector organizations, Hollister suggested.
In earlier versions of USASpending.gov, OMB couldn’t assure the quality of the data agencies were submitting, Robert Shea, associate director for management under President George W. Bush, told Nextgov. Shea, now a principal at Grant Thornton, was responsible for launching the first iteration of the site.
“We didn't have controls ... with which to assess whether or not all we reported was all we should have been reporting,” he said. “We asked agencies to produce data quality plans—all of them certified that their data was of high quality, but it wasn’t. The data was quite unreliable … [and] had some personally identifiable information in it.”
The bigger challenge, Shea said, was that agencies don’t always grasp how the public will use the data.
“They resent having to work heroically to produce information [when] they're not sure what use will be made of it,” he said. Some don’t always believe there’s a “benefit to the transparency alone, irrespective of what analysis will be made.”
And the data isn’t just for the public. President Donald Trump’s administration is especially interested in any case studies that emerge from the massive aggregation of federal spending data, Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives, told a hackathon audience last month.
Lira, staffed on Trump’s White House Office of American Innovation, noted the interagency collaboration the DATA Act requires could also be a model for “broader modernization of the federal government.”