Justice IG Michael Horowitz notified lawmakers that IGs will not be able to deliver their first reports on time.

Justice IG Michael Horowitz notified lawmakers that IGs will not be able to deliver their first reports on time. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Timing Glitch in DATA Act Makes It Impossible for IGs to Meet Reporting Deadline

Agencies won't have spending reports ready until 2017, so watchdogs get extension on reviewing those reports.

In a little-noticed letter to lawmakers last December, the inspectors general council gave notice that IGs will be unable to meet a deadline looming next month for reporting progress under 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

Citing an “important timing anomaly” in the statute, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote to the chairmen and ranking members of the main Senate and House government oversight panels to note that “the first inspector general reports are due to Congress in November 2016. However, the agencies we oversee are not required to submit spending data in compliance with the DATA Act until May 2017. As a result, inspectors general would be unable to report on the spending data submitted under the act, as this data will not exist until the following year.” Horowitz chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

The DATA Act, designed to prompt agencies to standardize their spending data for easy public access, searchability and transparency, has been subject to delays in implementation. Following initial guidance issued in June 2015 from the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department, lawmakers and the Government Accountability Office have weighed in with criticisms of the pace and depth of the governmentwide effort. Despite OMB’s efforts to be agile in building the needed elements, officials acknowledged the likelihood of more delays before the May 2017 deadline.

The Government Accountability Office is planning an updated report on DATA Act implementation for November, Government Executive has learned.

The text of the law says the IGs are to file reports within 18 months of the first guidance from the White House budget office, which would mean next month. They are to “review a statistically valid sampling of the spending data submitted under this act by the federal agency” and ‘‘submit to Congress and make publically available a report assessing the completeness, timeliness, quality and accuracy of the data sampled and the implementation and use of data standards by the federal agency.” Each IG is to produce three reports under the statute, the first due in November 2016 and the remaining two in November 2018 and November 2020.

In the letter to oversight panel chairmen Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and the ranking members of the committees, the IG council chairman said, “We believe the enactment last year of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 will significantly improve the quality of federal spending data available to Congress, the public and the accountability community if properly implemented.”

Because of the statute’s anomaly, however, the IGs plan to provide their first required reports in November 2017, with subsequent reports on a two-year cycle. In the meantime, Horowitz’s letter said, inspectors general are being encouraged to prepare “readiness reviews” well in advance of the November 2017 deadline, using guidance the council has prepared. Some of those reviews are already under way, according to a staffer at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Government Executive reviewed preliminary DATA Act IG readiness reports from the departments of Labor and Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Railroad Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

FDIC officials, for example, in September said they had established a DATA Act team of subject matter experts and appointed an officer who has overall responsibility for implementation. Staff had reviewed the standardized data elements and determined which data elements the FDIC must report, created a data inventory and identified associated business processes, determined the source systems to extract needed data, and identified potential gaps.

Yet “overall, the FDIC’s preparedness efforts were being impacted by delays in receiving guidance and clarification on key issues from OMB and the Treasury, and by slippage in Treasury’s scheduled release of the production-ready version of the broker,” the FDIC document said. “Further, OMB, in collaboration with the Treasury, had not yet addressed GAO’s recommendation to clarify existing guidance on agency responsibilities for reporting awards funded through a non-annual appropriations process.” FDIC’s report said further delays “could affect the FDIC’s ability to begin reporting spending data in accordance with established standards by the governmentwide implementation date of May 9, 2017.”

In an Aug. 3 update for lawmakers, GAO similarly said that IGs had expressed “concerns about agencies’ ability to provide assurances of the quality of their data. For example, several members of a DATA Act working group made up of staff from inspectors general offices across the federal government told us that they do not have confidence that existing internal control structures will allow for the types of assurances required under the act.”

GAO continued: “These officials were concerned about their agencies’ ability to provide data quality assurances for data that are not directly provided by the agency, such as data submitted by non-federal entities who receive federal awards and report sub-award information directly into reporting systems.”

OMB staff told GAO they are developing clarification for agencies on maintaining data quality.

The Senate panel staff and the Treasury Department did not respond to inquiries by publication time.

Hudson Hollister, executive director of the nonprofit Data Coalition—a longtime booster of the DATA Act—said he remains hopeful. “We are expecting inspectors general to follow the law by delivering reports on agencies' readiness to comply with the DATA Act,” he told Government Executive. “Inspectors general reports are essential to the success of the law not just because the data should be automated, but also because inspectors general themselves can use spending data to empower anti-fraud analytics. Inspectors general should watch this data because it will be extremely useful."