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Making DATA Act Real Means Working Nights and Weekends

Financial management leaders hopeful on standardizing data to measure program performance.

Small Business Administration staff are working overtime to keep up progress on a pilot project to standardize spending data as required by the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

“In addition to everything we do, along with a new executive order or guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, it’s the same people who must fit it all in,” said Tim Gribben, SBA’s deputy chief financial officer, at a Tuesday breakfast. “There’s also a fear that we’ll get tons of Freedom of Information Act requests, for which we don’t have the resources to explain.”

Gribben’s cry of exhaustion was echoed by co-panelists as he demonstrated new software tools that align, link and package as visuals varying data on SBA grants and loans. He spoke to an audience of agency officials and contractors at an event organized by the Data Transparency Coalition and PwC.

The overtime is “a big challenge” at the Veterans Affairs Department, said VA Deputy Assistant Finance Secretary Laurie Park. The fact that top leaders are focused on a spate of controversies over mismanagement “makes keeping a focus on the job difficult.”

Mark Reger, the U.S. deputy controller, said, “There is no new money for the DATA Act, and people do work nights and weekends. But they’re doing it with a high degree of necessity to manage the financial controls so they can manage themselves. It’s critical we give management the tools,” he added, “but people really do want to do these things and manage their agencies better.”

Reger compared implementing the DATA Act to the challenges of deep space exploration inspired by the fictional “Star Wars” movies -- “the American desire to go outside the box.” So far, the SBA’s pilot “shows we have the power to get a monkey into space, but we’ve not yet landed a man on the moon,” he said. The entity that has achieved a sort of DATA Act “Star Wars” capability is Wal-Mart, he added, describing his experience with a cashier at the world’s largest retailer who could instantly access information on his desired product—how many are in stock, what brands, where the products were made.

SBA was chosen for the pilot by the Treasury Department because it is the smallest of the Chief Financial Officer Act agencies, and is hence “more nimble with fewer complexities,” Gribben said. “We have one financial system for grants and contracts, but we run the gamut from loans, direct and guaranteed, to counseling and insurance products.”

Though delivering streamlined, standardized spending data with open-source coding inside the agency’s firewall “is achievable, there are lots of unknowns,” he said. His team realized that if one office changes an element or standard, “other agencies would have to invest resources in customizing the source code to adapt it. So SBA has created “flat source files” to sort records by phases –funds availability, different appropriations accounts and projects, awards such as those published now on USAspending.gov, and links of the awards to financial data and eventually data on program performance.

Such linkage is the DATA Act’s ultimate “magic and power,” he said, displaying a “bubble map visualization of SBA’s micro-loan technical assistance program’s grants across the country. It dramatized in terms “comprehensible and manageable, not intimidating to the program staff,” some gaps in loan coverage in states such as Montana and Idaho, which may need them most, Gribben said. “In the future, we hope to have a wealth of data so we can spend more time doing analytics on how programs are working,” he said. This would be a much deeper view than the progress on agency priority goals available at a more macro level on Performance.gov.

DATA Act enthusiasts hope the implementation will help curb overlapping and duplicative programs identified regularly by the Government Accountability Office. Programs in, say, the Commerce or the Agriculture departments, Gribben added, “are hard for SBA or people on the outside to understand what the program really is.”

Reger stressed that financial management staff will face “increasing pressure from the program world. When the next administration comes in 2017, the financial management community will get a seat at the table because the first thing they will want is to link financial data to performance.” He cited an example of Puerto Rico’s effort to sell bonds, which has prompted “data calls” to agencies on what the island territory is receiving in federal grants—a process that in the past could take three years.

Financial management specialists, Reger added, are used to data that’s reliable and high-quality, but the DATA Act will mean “relying on data over which they have no control—such as the Federal Procurement Data System for new contracts. “We do need to bring the two cadences together, to bring the quality up so it’s good enough to audit, he added. “CFOs for years have ignored procurement people—they don’t get along—but now we’re going to get in a box with them.”

A coming revision of OMB’s A-123 circular on internal financial controls, he added, will include several pages on privacy and risk management concerns elevated by the DATA Act.

The VA, said Park, who previously worked at Treasury and Transportation, “is still the wild west,” in that the department has 150 financial systems that are not linked, and with no numbers scheme. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have lots of good data” in data warehouses, she added. “We need a process to bring in the data and normalize it and give access to all systems to make the data understandable. But making it all aligned, Park added, “is hard. It will take quite a bit of time.”

(Image via  / Shutterstock.com)

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