DATA Act might have saved GSA from scandal

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Information collected under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, now pending before Congress, could have helped prevent the over-the-top 2010 conference that erupted into a General Services Administration scandal in April, data vendors said Tuesday.

It also might have spotted warning signals that the $500 million Energy Department loan guarantee to the now bankrupt Solyndra was turning into a bad bet, they said during a DATA Act demo day sponsored by the Data Transparency Coalition, a trade association.

The DATA Act would require federal grant and contract recipients to file quarterly reports on their spending and that of their subcontractors to an independent commission modeled on the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which tracked implementation of the 2009 economic stimulus package.

The Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission also would collect information on spending and obligations from federal agencies using a standardized set of codes so watchdogs could organize spending data by type of contract, city, congressional district and other categories. All the information would be streamed on a government website.

The bill passed the House in April but has yet to be debated in the Senate.

Much of the spending that went into GSA’s $820,000 Western Regions conference exceeded prescribed limits. If those bills had been reported in real time and combed through with data analytics tools to spot patterns, the agency’s inspector general might have been tipped off in time to halt or scale back the conference , the vendors said. Journalists or watchdog groups combing through the same publicly available data also might have spotted the pattern.

“There’s always going to be a Jeff Neely at the federal level, at the state level and at the local level,” said JJ Kirkpatrick, marketing director for Level One Technologies, referencing the regional commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service who planned the lavish conference.

“Right now, they’re happily operating in the darkness,” Kirkpatrick said. “With the DATA Act we can shine a bright light on their activities.”

House lawmakers made the same point when voting to pass the DATA Act. A late amendment to the House bill prohibited excessive conference spending. A similar amendment was tacked on to a U.S. Postal Service reform bill.

The Office of Management and Budget has expressed concern that the DATA Act, as written, could create as much bureaucracy as it eliminates.

The White House launched a similar entity to the DATA Act’s FAST Commission in July 2011 known as the Government Accountability and Transparency Board.

The year-old board is running a series of pilots aimed at applying tools developed to track 2009 stimulus spending governmentwide, according to a progress report released Monday.

Many of the tools are focused on spotting potential fraudsters applying for federal grants and contracts and investigating them before those awards are paid out. The Do Not Pay tool the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget developed, for instance, pulls together information from numerous databases to “help agencies identify debarred contractors, deceased individuals, excluded health care providers or people who owe the federal government nontax debts,” the report noted.

The GAT Board is piloting Do Not Pay and other tools with a handful of inspectors general, the report said.

The report was introduced in a blog post Monday by Danny Werfel, controller of OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management.

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