GAO on DATA ACT: Quality of Data Submissions has Improved, but Room for Growth

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on Nov. 8 providing updates and recommendations on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). The report offered two recommendations for the Treasury Department.

The DATA Act “requires Federal agencies to report spending data to USAspending.gov, a public-facing website,” GAO said. As part of the report GAO examined the quality of spending data submitted by 96 Federal agencies for Q4 of FY2018 and compared the submissions to its previous review of data from Q2 FY2017.

GAO noted improvements in overall data quality but said agencies are still struggling to submit complete, accurate data, and aren’t entirely using data standards, disclosing data limitations, and complying with data governance

Regarding the completeness of data, GAO found that the number of agencies, agency components, and programs that submitted data increased compared to Q2 FY2017. An additional 17 agencies submitted data in Q4 FY2018 than in Q2 FY2017. Additionally, GAO noted that “awards for 39 financial assistance programs were omitted from the data in Q4 FY2018, compared to 160 financial assistance programs in Q2 FY2017.”

GAO further reported that accuracy of data improved for both budgetary and award transactions. GAO, which said accuracy is “measured as consistency between reported data and agency source records or other authoritative sources and applicable laws and reporting standards,” estimated with 95 percent confidence that “84 and 96 percent of the budgetary transactions and between 24 and 34 percent of the award transactions were fully consistent for all applicable data elements.” That data is a marked improvement over Q2 FY2017 where GAO estimated that only “56 to 75 percent of budget transactions and 0 to 1 percent of award transactions were fully consistent.”

However, GAO did note issues with agencies using data standards and identified challenges related to two specific data elements, Award Description and Primary Place of Performance Address. GAO said that those to elements are “particularly important to achieving the DATA Act’s transparency goals.” The report found that agencies differ on how they interpret and apply the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) standard definitions for these data elements. “As a result, data on USAspending.gov are not always comparable, and in some cases it is difficult for users to understand the purpose of an award or to identify the location where the performance of the award occurred,” the report found.

While the amount of data submitted is increasing, GAO did identify known data limitations that were not fully disclosed on USAspending.gov. The report specifically cited that the 90-day delay for inclusion of the Department of Defense (DoD) procurement data is not “clearly communicated.” Additionally, while the website does provide a total figure amount of unreported spending, it isn’t clear whether that figure includes the 11 agencies that haven’t submitted the data required under the DATA Act. The GAO said that “Not knowing this information could lead users of USAspending.gov to inadvertently draw inaccurate conclusions from the data.”

GAO noted that while OMB and the Department of the Treasury have established “some” procedures for governing the data standards established under the DATA Act, they have not yet developed procedures for enforcing the “consistent use of established data standards.” Referencing previous GAO reports, the report noted that “[p]ersistent challenges related to how agencies interpret and apply data standards underscore GAO’s prior recommendations on establishing a governance structure that ensures the integrity of these standards.”

The report concluded by tasking the Treasury Department with two recommendations.

First, GAO said the Secretary of the Treasury should “ensure that information about the 90-day delay for displaying DoD procurement data on USAspending.gov is transparently communicated to users of the site.”  The report also said that the Secretary should “ensure that information regarding how the Primary Place of Performance Address for Medicare payment data are reported is transparently communicated to the users of USAspending.gov.”

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