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Friday, February 23, 2024

GAO: Action Needed to Ensure Consistency and Usefulness of New Data Standards

The federal government’s substantial expenditure of approximately $1.2 trillion on grants in 2022 has prompted the need for improved tracking and management mechanisms due to the disparate data collection methods employed by various agencies. Addressing this challenge, the Grant Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency (GREAT) Act emerges as a potential solution by setting standards for uniform agency data collection practices across the government.

In a collaborative effort, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have identified a comprehensive set of 540 data elements crucial for effective grant management. These elements encompass essential information such as funding amounts, project dates, and locations. While this marks significant progress, further efforts are required to standardize these elements fully, ensuring their utility for stakeholders and Congress.

Notably, OMB and HHS have made strides in meeting one of the three elapsed deadlines outlined in the GREAT Act of 2019, specifically related to data standards. The government-wide data standards were partially established in June 2021, with the identification and definition of the 540 grant data elements. However, a crucial aspect of this achievement is the partial nature of the deadline, as 501 of these elements lack vital technical specifications that describe their format and structure, hindering operationalizability.

Figure: Extent to Which OMB and HHS Met Select Statutory Requirements in the Grants Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency Act of 2019 as of December 2023

GAO: Action Needed to Ensure Consistency and Usefulness of New Data Standards Homeland Security Today
aFulfillment of this requirement shall occur not later than the earlier of one year after enactment or after data standards establishment Pub L No 116 103 7c 133 Stat 3266 3271 2019

Moreover, while the data elements align fully with five of the eight statutory requirements, they only partially align with the remaining three. For instance, 501 out of 540 elements lack machine-readability, prompting a need for the development of technical specifications to achieve this crucial attribute. The importance of machine-readability cannot be overstated, as it enhances the accessibility and comparability of data.

A closer examination by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that some data elements fail to adhere to five out of 13 leading practices for formulating data definitions. Among a randomly selected sample of 50 data elements, 20 did not meet at least one of the 13 leading practices. Ambiguous definitions were noted as a common issue, introducing potential inconsistencies and rendering the data incomparable.

The consultation process with stakeholders, a pivotal aspect of successful implementation, was found to be lacking. While OMB and HHS engaged in stakeholder consultation during the initial development phase, GAO discovered a dearth of a plan for ongoing engagement or a process for regular communication with Congress regarding GREAT Act implementation. Stakeholders reported limited consultation, and congressional staff expressed inconsistent communication from OMB and HHS. Effective consultation and communication are integral to refining data standards and ensuring Congress possesses the essential information for overseeing the GREAT Act.

In conclusion, the journey towards establishing comprehensive and standardized grant reporting data standards continues. The GREAT Act, while making strides, requires further refinement, especially in addressing technical specifications, ensuring machine-readability, and enhancing stakeholder consultation and communication. The commitment to these improvements is essential to fortify the efficacy and transparency of federal grant management.

Read the full GAO report here.

Matt Seldon
Matt Seldon
Matt Seldon, BSc., is an Editorial Associate with HSToday. He has over 20 years of experience in writing, social media, and analytics. Matt has a degree in Computer Studies from the University of South Wales in the UK. His diverse work experience includes positions at the Department for Work and Pensions and various responsibilities for a wide variety of companies in the private sector. He has been writing and editing various blogs and online content for promotional and educational purposes in his job roles since first entering the workplace. Matt has run various social media campaigns over his career on platforms including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and LinkedIn on topics surrounding promotion and education. His educational campaigns have been on topics including charity volunteering in the public sector and personal finance goals.

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