Senators to OMB: Get Cracking on Effort to Standardize Spending Data

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and three colleagues wrote a letter to the OMB director. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and three colleagues wrote a letter to the OMB director. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The White House is behind on doing its part in the governmentwide effort to standardize spending data to improve transparency, a bipartisan group of senators said Tuesday in an aggressive, detailed letter to Budget Director Shaun Donovan.

A pilot project the Office of Management and Budget set up to ease the clerical reporting burden on contractors is “four months behind schedule, does not adhere to leading practices for pilot program management or design and, as it currently stands, is unlikely to reduce reporting costs for most contractors,” said four members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in demanding acceleration of the effort to implement the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. The Obama administration’s approach, they suggested, is not responsive to the law.

Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; Ranking Member Tom Carper, D-Del.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, reiterated earlier pressure on the administration, this time to implement recommendations in an April Government Accountability Office report and adjust the pilot program to fully respond to the law’s demands, they said.

The White House is actually running two pilot programs in this area, one for grants at the Health and Human Services Department, and the other for contracts at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. The latter, the senators said, “targeted a very narrow reporting requirement for construction contractors.” GAO noted that “this narrow approach stands in contrast to the grants portion of the pilot where HHS has a broader, more comprehensive plan to explore several areas where grantee reporting burden might be reduced.”

The senators asked that the procurement office redesign its pilot “to test data elements applicable to all federal contractors and create a project plan that incorporates leading practices in project management” in time to meet the May 2017 statutory deadline.

The senators requested that OMB by May 27 submit a plan for implementing the GAO recommendations. This plan should include estimated completion dates, the names of individuals responsible for implementation and “all risk mitigation tasks that might be necessary if issues occur during the data reporting phase of the pilot,” the senator said.

They asked for a description of the General Services Administration’s role in the pilot and current results, as well as OMB’s plan to “implement GAO’s recommendation to incorporate leading management practices into the design of the procurement pilot.”

Specifically, the senators said, “The DATA Act requires the pilot program to include a diverse group of award recipients with an aggregate award value of $1 billion-$2 billion. GAO found that the procurement pilot may not meet this statutory requirement.” The lawmakers asked how OMB anticipates changing the pilot to address all types of contracts.

OMB did not respond to Government Executive inquiries by publication time. But at an April 19 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, Controller David Mader said his team respected the GAO’s findings and would return with a new plan within 45 days.

The administration has been struggling to corral all agencies in endeavoring to standardize and digitize their spending data for publication on a redesigned Earlier this month, OMB and the Treasury Department finalized their long-awaited guidance for DATA Act standards.

Obstacles to progress on the contracting pilot cited by GAO include short staffing and delays because of a bid protest of the award for working with GSA’s 18F digital services team in building a centralized reporting portal. “OFPP staff told us that they do not intend to begin testing a centralized reporting portal until late summer 2016,” GAO wrote. OFPP and GSA officials said “they were faced with delays due to bid protests related to the contracting mechanism GSA intends to use to select a contractor to build the portal to be tested under the pilot.”

GAO’s auditors said that those issues have been resolved and that the deadline a year away requires accelerated action.

What OMB is trying is not what the law intended, said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the industry nonprofit called the Data Coalition. The DATA Act’s section 5 says if the government achieves a consistent data structure, then it can automate, and “if we have governmentwide fields and formats for the information that the contractors and grantees have to report, then someone can build a TurboTax” for grant and contract reporting, he told Government Executive.

It was OMB’s decision to bifurcate the pilot into one for grants and one for contracts in its effort to convert to all-electronic from the current paper “documents and disconnected databases they’re reporting to now,” Hollister added. “But if OMB is only focusing on a narrow slice, that’s not consistent with the law.”

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