Recognizing the importance of fiscal transparency, and the complexity and diverse funding sources of the U.S. federal government, the U.S. Congress passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) to require federal agencies to make spending data more transparent and available. The vision is: Better Data, Better Decisions, Better Government. The official reporting compliance date is May 2017.
There is less than one year until all U.S. federal agencies must submit their standardized spending data for public display. Historically, these agencies have managed spending data in multiple ways. This has exposed issues related to data quality, data gaps, and policies and procedures for data collection. Before judging agencies for these current inefficiencies, it should be noted that they are funded by Congress in large buckets, and it takes a lot of effort to budget from these appropriations.
Tracking funding through contracts, grants and loans to recipients ranging from companies, states, universities and organizations is another major challenge. These tend to be managed in different systems in a variety of formats. To be made transparent under the new law, this data will need to be carefully integrated and linked to both program data and large federal financial systems.
The promise ahead: open data for new uses
Despite numerous challenges, baseline DATA Act reporting compliance is within reach, offering the promise of future data uses never before possible.
A transformational view of transparency using standard spending data holds the potential for real change and major payoffs. Due to the complexity of the compliance effort, and the overall lack of specific DATA Act funding, agencies have not yet focused their efforts on the long-term view of how to use the newly transparent data for improvements to overall program management.
Full compliance and future IT upgrades to streamline and increase reporting efficiencies that take advantage of application programming interfaces (APIs) and upgrades, or replacement of legacy systems, require longer-term, close coordination with:
- Federal chief financial officers, who manage the DATA Act business workflow
- Federal chief information officers, who have responsibility for all IT spending
- Program managers, who are responsible for numerous programs that use federal contracts and grants and who have a view of departmental systems
The easy access to standardized spending information will better inform Congress, improve oversight work by the Government Accounting Office and Inspectors General, and give the public a better view of government programs. Use of the standard data by researchers and private companies is expected to open new vistas and perhaps new business opportunities. Most importantly, it will help government perform better analysis of whether spending on certain programs is really leading to the expected outcomes.
Once such data becomes readily available, this transformational approach will begin to become reality. As part of our Momentum ERP solution, CGI has developed a visualization tool that can inform agencies of the potential in this data.