Why some of the government’s numbers can’t add up

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act became law in 2014 and requires agencies to report their spending data to be compiled in a single, publicly accessible source.

But just because that data is being reported doesn’t mean that it’s all in the same format.

According to a March 22 Government Accountability Office report, the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for setting data standards under the act, does not have a set procedure for issuing those standards and has sometimes done so without informing the public.

“Since enactment, OMB has relied on a shifting array of advisory bodies to obtain input on data standards. As of December 2018, some governance procedures are in place, but others continue to evolve,” the report said.

“OMB staff told us that the governing bodies involved in initial implementation efforts had been disbanded, and that the functions previously performed by these advisory bodies over governance of DATA Act data standards would be accomplished within the broader context of the cross-agency priority goals established under the 2018 President’s Management Agenda. However, the documentation of the governance structure established for these goals does not make explicit how it would apply to the data standards established under the DATA Act.”

OMB manages a web page that is supposed to be the authoritative source for data definition standards, but does not have set procedures for making changes to that page, according to the report.

For example, OMB made revisions in June 2018 to the “Primary Place of Performance Address” data element, without following a documented process for doing so.

OMB staff said that it was only a minor technical correction, but the GAO report argued that, without a process for reporting such changes, agencies may not make the necessary updates in a timely manner, resulting in inconsistent or faulty data.

“Along with the corrections to definitions, in June 2018 OMB changed introductory text on the data definitions web page to clarify policy about how agencies should use DATA Act definitions. However, OMB did not publicly announce this clarification or identify on the website that changes had been made,” the report said.

“Without transparent communication of changes to data definition standards, stakeholders — including staff at federal agencies required to report data according to these definitions — may miss important information relating to changes in how, when and by whom data definitions are to be applied.”

The report recommended that OMB document a process for changing its standards for DATA Act reporting, and that it makes sure to go back and identify the June 2018 changes to policy in a public, authoritative source.

OMB neither agreed or disagreed with the recommendations.

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