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Watchdog: Fuzzy Communication Is Hindering Effort to Standardize Agency Data

Amid reorganization OMB lacks clarity on DATA Act, GAO finds.

Five years after the passage of the DATA Act, the White House budget office still lacks clear definitions of which program data are essential, in part because of its still-in-flux effort to reorganize, a watchdog reported.

Nor has the Office of Management and Budget done enough to communicate its definitions of program data standards and how they differ from the Treasury Department’s more technical standards, the Government Accountability Office said in a Friday report to House and Senate committee leaders.

The audit comes as the Trump administration is reorganizing to enhance the role of the General Services Administration while folding its implementation of the 2014 Data Accountability and Transparency Act into the President’s Management Agenda.

“In December 2018, OMB staff told us that they are transitioning from the governance structure used for initial DATA Act implementation to a new structure for managing data standards within the broader context of efforts to establish a federal data strategy,” GAO wrote after auditing OMB’s DATA Act work from November 2017 to March 2019.  “OMB made changes to some of the definitions and clarified policies about how they are to be applied, but did not communicate those changes to stakeholders, including the public.”

The goal of the DATA Act is to harmonize and standardize agency data sets in formats that protect quality and permit easy cross-referencing for agency program evaluation and utility for outside researchers.

“GAO’s prior work examining the quality of the data reported under the act found significant challenges that limit the usefulness of the data for Congress and the public,” GAO wrote. “These data quality challenges underscore the need for OMB and Treasury to make progress on addressing GAO’s prior recommendation to establish a set of clear policies and processes for developing and maintaining data standards.”

A good example is the administration’s goal of improving reporting of spending on grants, which is among its cross-agency policy goals. “Published documents describing this effort do not explain how the process for developing grants management standards under this CAP goal would apply specifically to the data standards established under the DATA Act,” GAO said. “Nor do they address if or how these new standards align with those established under the act.”

The governance structure is evolving, GAO noted. In interviews with auditors last summer, OMB staffers said that they had disbanded the existing governance structure, which included the DATA Act Interagency Advisory Committee and Data Standards Committee. In its stead, OMB stressed, are advisory subgroups coordinated by the Chief Financial Officers Council’s DATA Act Group, now being advised by GSA. A March 2018 action plan has the new interagency Shared Solutions Governance Board and Business Standards Council responsible for setting goals and providing advice that will include DATA Act compliance.

“OMB staff told us that the staff members from OMB and Treasury who are responsible for the grants management standards are the same people involved in managing the DATA Act standards. While this connection between the two efforts may provide adequate communication in the short term,” GAO said, “staffing is likely to change over time, and there is no assurance that the same people will always be involved.”

Auditors made two recommendations. First, that OMB document its procedure for changing data definition standards for DATA Act reporting, and second, that it ensure those changes are identified in publicly posted guidance. “OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations,” GAO reported.