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Agencies Looking for Internal Data Turn to USASpending.gov

Advocates say the DATA Act is changing the way government works.

It’s surprising how many agencies now use USASpending.gov to “access their own data,” said David Lebryk, the fiscal assistant Treasury secretary who on Monday delivered an upbeat assessment of governmentwide progress in implementing the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

“We’re off to a great start on tough challenges, but outsiders don’t really appreciate how complex government is,” he said at a breakfast sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Government Analytics program and REI Systems. 

“We’re not a small business,” Lebryk said, referring to the federal government. “We’re the biggest entity in the world. And at a time of budget constraints, there is more scrutiny of spending, of which the DATA Act is a part.”

Lebryk and Comptroller David Mader are leading the team charged with implementing the DATA Act, which is designed to standardize spending information in machine-readable formats to make it accessible to the public. “With no new funding,” Lebryk said, “we’ve tried to think it through creatively, to use technology as our friend. We’re not doing massive system changes, and it’s important that the data be owned by the agencies.”

“Agencies often don’t have the incentive to get to the level of precision” needed for USASpending because they don’t all need the same data, he added. Information sets on contracts, grants and loans were not “designed to speak to one another,” Lebryk noted, and adding links from awards to the government’s 48 core financial systems is a complicated undertaking. The DATA Act’s language about “helping policymakers” is a reference to Congress, not agencies, he suggested.

To save money, it’s important to reformat data sets during the normal financial cycle, to deal with vendors up front on the issue so it only has to be done once, he said.

This spring’s upgrade of USASpending.gov—to which some transparency advocates objected—was done with an eye on three types of users, Lebryk said: casual users in the general public; those who want analytic tools to drill deeply; and those who simply want the data and don’t care about the tools. The recent upgrade was intended to enhance the second group, he said. “We were trying for improvements in usability, but not trying to improve the quality of the data,” which is where the DATA Act will come in, he said.

Treasury has had an easier time than many agencies in implementing the act because it uses a shared services provider for financial software rather than a “boutique” system that’s hard to get into,” he said. He praised the private sector’s input, predicting eventual “outcomes that we can’t anticipate today.”

One of Lebryk’s teammates at the Office of Management and Budget gave additional details on progress at the June 10 Data Act Summit sponsored by the Data Transparency Coalition.

Karen Lee, branch chief at OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management, said the DATA Act already is, “changing the way government does its work, changing the way it interacts with non-federal partners” as it becomes institutionalized. She described pilot programs to reduce the burden of agency reporting. “There’s no one regulation or policy that is a magic bullet, as there are many sources for the burden,” Lee said. But the multi-agency implementation team is seeking to curb multiple requirements for supplying the same information, she said.

Agencies themselves will benefit, she said. Data on improper payments, for example, can be analyzed by an agency to see “whether they made an improper payment and to learn how not to make them.”

(Image via McIek/Shutterstock.com)

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