GAO Finds Federal Spending Data Quality Issues

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) requires federal agencies to report spending data to USAspending.gov, a public-facing website.

A total of 96 federal agencies submitted required spending data for quarter four of fiscal year 2018 (Q4 FY2018) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has examined the quality of these data. GAO identified improvements in overall data quality when compared to its prior review for the second quarter of FY2017, but said challenges remain for completeness, accuracy, use of data standards, disclosure of data limitations, and overall data governance.

The number of agencies, agency components, and programs that submitted data increased. For example, 11 agencies did not submit data in Q4 FY2018, compared to 28 in Q2 FY2017. Awards for 39 financial assistance programs were omitted from the data in Q4 FY2018, compared to 160 financial assistance programs in Q2 FY2017.

Based on a projectable governmentwide sample, GAO found that data accuracy for Q4 FY2018—measured as consistency between reported data and agency source records or other authoritative sources and applicable laws and reporting standards—improved for both budgetary and award transactions. GAO estimates with 95 percent confidence that between 84 and 96 percent of the budgetary transactions and between 24 and 34 percent of the award transactions were fully consistent for all applicable data elements. In Q2 FY2017, GAO estimated that 56 to 75 percent of budget transactions and 0 to 1 percent of award transactions were fully consistent.

GAO continued to identify challenges related to the implementation and use of two data elements— Award Description and Primary Place of Performance Address— that are particularly important to achieving the DATA Act’s transparency goals. GAO found that agencies continue to differ in how they interpret and apply The Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) standard definitions for these data elements. As a result, data on USAspending.gov are not always comparable, and in some cases it is difficult for users to understand the purpose of an award or to identify the location where the performance of the award occurred.

GAO’s November 8 report details how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used the Award Description field to describe modifications to contracts instead of the good or service being procured. Specifically, DHS reported “de-obligate excess funds and closeout” for a modification to a contract that procured information technology products and services.

DHS officials said reporting the nature of the modification, rather than the original purpose of the award, is consistent with practices used in contract writing systems across the federal government and is intended to inform the public of changes made to the contract by the modification. DHS is now working with the Department of the Treasury to clarify how this information is displayed on USAspending.gov and suggested that additional information on how award descriptions for modifications are to be reported would be beneficial.

The review identified known data limitations that were not fully disclosed on USAspending.gov. For example, GAO found the 90-day delay for inclusion of Department of Defense procurement data is not clearly communicated. In addition, although the website provides a total figure for unreported spending it is unclear whether it includes the 11 agencies that did not submit data.

Finally, GAO noted that OMB and the Department of the Treasury have established some procedures for governing the data standards established under the DATA Act, but procedures for enforcing the consistent use of established data standards have yet to be developed.

GAO underlined its previous recommendations on DATA Act implementation, including monitoring agency submissions, providing additional guidance on reporting established data standards, implementing a systematic approach to facilitate the disclosure of known data limitations on USAspending.gov, and developing a robust and transparent governance structure.

In addition, it recommends that the Department of the Treasury should ensure that information about the 90-day delay for displaying Department of Defense procurement data on USAspending.gov is transparently communicated to users of the site.

Read the full report at GAO

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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