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Data Act could transform government, save billions

May. 5, 2014 - 06:34PM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
Christina Ho: DATA Act gains will be incremental.
Christina Ho: DATA Act gains will be incremental. (Rob Curtis/Staff)

The DATA Act has the potential to save billions of dollars a year and transform how the government approaches performance management, contracting and possibly its own workforce, supporters say.

But now that it has passed Congress, agencies face the task of implementing legislation that lawmakers, federal officials and contractors are hailing as a major breakthrough in changing how the government operates.

The Treasury Department, in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget, has to set governmentwide standards and implement transparency requirements for all federal funds spent or granted by any federal agency. The data would continue through contractors and subcontractors or grantees in as much detail as possible.

The legislation will also:

■Set financial standards to make all spending data adhere to a uniform set of guidelines and publish that spending data on USAspending.gov.

■Require inspectors general at each agency to provide reports on the quality and accuracy of the financial data.

■Establish a cutting-edge data analytics center modeled after the Recovery Act that would help identify and prevent improper payments, and expand analytic efforts across the government by serving agency leaders, inspectors general and watchdog groups.

The legislation also will launch a two-year pilot project for federal money recipients, such as universities or state and local governments, to standardize and streamline how they report spending federal dollars.

After that, the director of the Office of Management and Budget will issue guidance to agencies on how to streamline recipient-reporting requirements and integrate that data into their own reporting.

But any progress that agencies make will have to be incremental, according to Christina Ho, executive director of Data Transparency at the Bureau of the Fiscal Service at the Treasury Department, who will help lead the implementation effort.

She said at a conference in Washington April 29 that first, the government will start setting common terms and definitions across agencies, so that less time and money is wasted on repeated data calls that could take days or weeks. It will also allow agencies to work more easily with each other and the private sector.

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Each step after that will build upon what came before, so that the government does not try to take on too much at once and end up failing. The goal is to work on problems as they come up and solve them before they become too big.

“We don’t want to wait until we know we can solve all the problems and have a perfect solution to move,” Ho said.

She said agencies will need more staff and additional resources to implement the law, as well as extensive collaboration between government, the private sector and the public.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who sponsored the original legislation, said the DATA Act will help identify savings in about $500 billion in duplicative programs, as well as show agencies where federal dollars are being wasted. He said while it’s not easy to cut out programs people want, agencies will know how much their programs cost and what benefit they get from each one.

“If you can count it, you can begin to find the places you can cull with no loss to the American people,” he said.

Issa also pointed to a recent IRS scandal that involved a contractor who parlayed a 30-year-old prep school ankle injury into $500 million in contracts in the form of a special service-disabled veteran status for his company, Signet Computers. If agencies had access to more detailed and standardized reporting data about contractors and subcontractors, that scandal could have been avoided, he said.

The DATA Act will have the same transformational effect as the Chief Financial Officer Act of 1990, which created agency CFOs and established standardized financial management tools, according to Dan McCrory, a principal in consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCooper’s public-sector practice.

While the technology exists to make data more transparent and standardized across government, the legislation provides a tool to leverage that technology, McCroy said. “This particular legislation really has the ability to take the government into the 21st century and beyond.”

The legislation also could reduce costs for contractors and agencies that request previously reported data, according to Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president at the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector.

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He said contractors spend at least $5 billion on data requests during the acquisition process, whether it’s providing information during the bidding process or over the life of the contract. Much of that is duplicated across government, and the DATA Act could decrease costs substantially.

“The DATA Act will cut bottom-line costs for contractors and the government,” Hodgkins said.

Amy Haseltine, associate deputy assistant secretary at the Health and Human Services Department, said the DATA Act will help create a common language that will make communicating with other agencies and grant recipients easier.

But the challenge will be to take IT systems designed for different purposes and make them communicate with common standards to produce the right data and information.

Haseltine urged patience as agencies work toward the goals of the DATA Act because federal managers will need to embrace a new culture that rewards increased data transparency.

“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. This is a cultural shift that we are trying to achieve,” she said.

It will be a change in culture to focus on and account for data at all levels, and placing transparency higher in priority, Ho said.

“It’s a very tricky balance. You want to make sure that you help people see the vision and articulate to them the benefits,” she said. “On the other hand, you also need to recognize that you can’t get everyone to see that vision right from the beginning.”

She said agencies cannot look at this from merely a compliance standpoint. They must embrace the changes as part of a wider effort to make data easier to exchange and understand, and eventually to help improve performance and operations.

“This is so transformational it needs more than compliance for it to work,” Ho said. ■

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