The long-awaited rollout of the DATA Act reporting requirements are set to debut on May 9, but a new report says challenges remain for agencies looking to capitalize on the law's Big Data possibilities.

The report, crafted by the DATA Foundation and Deloitte, examines what the law's the immediate impact may be as agencies begin to report their spending data in a standardized format, as well as forecasts the benefits the law could hold once it's fully implemented in 2022.

Related: Read the report

The 2014 DATA Act aims to take advantage of the burgeoning benefits of Big Data by standardizing the format for all federal agency spending information and reporting it through an open source system to increase transparency.

Agencies were given until May 9, 2017, to convert their spending data to the new format, but several have struggled to meet the deadline, hobbled by challenges ranging from outdated legacy systems to linking between financial and procurement systems.

The report interviewed 20 stakeholders from both the Office of Management and Budget and Department of Treasury — as well as officials from agencies, the contracting community and Congress — finding that while the law will ultimately benefit both the federal government and the public, there will still be some growing pains.

"Initial expectations are modest, given the outlook for incomplete reporting and varying data quality at first," the report said. "Even so, the data to be reported should provide a valuable resource for agencies and the public."

The report identifies seven problems, both cultural and technical, that agencies may face in the early days of DATA Act reporting compliance, alongside possible solutions including:

  • Problem: The DATA Act may be perceived only as a "compliance" exercise.
  • Solution: Encourage agencies to rely on the DATA Act for their own internal processes.
  • Problem: The public-interest community may lack expertise and motivation to use the DATA Act data set.
  • Solution: Educate the community on how to use the unified data set effectively.
  • Problem: Treasury and OMB may lack the resources to manage and maintain data standards.
  • Solution: Establish a permanent governance structure for the data standards.
  • Problem: Legacy reporting systems may imperil data accuracy.
  • Solution: Update the DATA Act Information Model Schema (DAIMS) to extract award information directly from source systems.
  • Problem: Vague definitions may imperil data comparability.
  • Solution: Improve data definitions within the DAIMS.
  • Problem: The government may make future changes to the data field that is used to identify entities that receive grants, contracts and other awards.
  • Solution: Work with all stakeholders to select a recipient identifier that maximizes transparency for data users, efficiency for agencies and convenience for recipients, and then stick to it.
  • Problem: The DAIMS does not reflect all stages of the federal spending lifecycle.
  • Solution: Expand the DAIMS to reflect the full lifecycle.

Some of the most compelling challenges surround the DAIMS, which is designed to help convert both the financial and procurement data elements into a single standardized format.

The report called for a new structure to help maintain the DAIMS long-term, noting that, as it is currently configured, the schema only has funding for fiscal 2016 and 2017.

"Treasury and OMB should not be expected to manage the DAIMS and its data elements indefinitely; they are responsible for financial management, not policy-driven transformation," the report said.

"Treasury and OMB, therefore, should establish a permanent, sustainable governance structure for data standards."

The report suggested that the DAIMS could be reformed based on two existing data reporting models, the Open Contracting Data Standard and the Global Legal Entity Identifier Foundation, to inform the establishment of a permanent DAIMS model.

The report’s authors estimate that if agencies buy-in on its potential, the DATA Act could streamline the way the government manages its finances.

"The May 2017 release of the first-ever unified federal spending data set will be a hard-earned first step," the report said.

"If the DATA Act community — legislators, Treasury and OMB leaders, agency financial managers, contractors and civil-society advocates — continue their work, the vision of freely-flowing and interoperable spending data could be achievable by 2022."

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