Rebecca Vermillion Shawver, MPA, GPC
The DATA Act of 2014: What is Everyone Worried About?
Everywhere I turn recently, the grant world is either talking about the DATA Act, the “Green Book,” or the new Uniform Grant Guidance. Do you know what these new regulations and rules are? Do you know if they will impact you? If not, this series of articles will hopefully help you understand at least the most basic and important issues contained in these three documents.
The Federal Data Act was passed by Congress in 2014 and implementation began in May of 2015. Some of you may have heard it referred to as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, or the DATA Act for short. This legislation was designed to create a more data-driven government, and to make federal data more transparent and readily available—all in the hopes of improving the quality of the facts and figures that help influence spending choices made by Congress and federal funding agencies.
Several government websites offer summaries and explanations of the act, all in hopes of helping us better understand why the changes have been made and how these changes will impact us. As grant professionals, we all know that whatever data the federal government uses will have significant impact upon our ability to raise federal grant funds. And while federal employees may think that these informational websites are easy to find, I found that it was not as easy to locate them as I had originally hoped. It took me some digging—in part because of the different names by which the legislation is known. But diligence paid off and I was successful in locating all the information that as grant writers we need to know.
What Does the DATA Act Do?
In government language (which is so dry that a crouton seems moist), the White House has stated that “the DATA Act requires Federal agencies to streamline (the) fragmentation and report Federal funds, broken down into specific categories like how much funding an agency receives from Congress and how much they are spending on specific projects and awards.”
In everyday language that means that Congress wants a standardized set of outcomes tied to their costs. For example, previously grant recipients were allowed to development their own measurements of success on job placement and training programs. Under the DATA Act, the Department of Labor will require all recipients to report achievements for a set of prescribed outcome objectives (aka deliverables). So while grant applicants can (and probably should) create additional process objectives, their programs’ success will first be first and foremost rated based on the prescribed ones.
The DATA Act also “requires agencies to use common government-wide data standards when posting that information to USAspending.gov—standards that aren’t currently applied across all agencies for all uses.” Again, this is formal government language that really means that federal agencies can’t play any games with how they report their own spending. All agencies will be required to comply with common reporting standards.
It is hoped that this will address the need for standardized wording and calculations of grant program outcomes that are truly comparable. No more apples to oranges—straight-forward data that is understandable and meaningful so that taxpayers and Congress can understand how American tax dollars are actually being spent. (Source: USASpending, https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/Data-Act.aspx.)
So What Does the DATA Act Actually Say?
I’ve heard a lot of chatter and complaints about the DATA Act, but no one seems to have been able to explain to me exactly what it will do. So I decided to learn more from my favorite source—the Internet, of course. And what I found was really not all that confusing. At this point, I really do think that I understand the act’s purpose and why grant recipients are being asked to comply with common deliverables and outcome objectives.
So in an effort to help you understand the act, I want to review some of the key changes and updates that I found listed on Congress’ website. If you get confused by the typical government language, hopefully my comments will help you better understand their meaning (or at least make you chuckle a bit). (Source: https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/senate-bill/994 .)
Section 2 of the DATA Act
The Purpose of the Act
The purpose of the act is to “disclose direct federal agency expenditures and link federal contract, loan, and grant spending information to federal programs to enable taxpayers and policy makers to track federal spending more effectively.” In other words, all federal agencies are required to tell the American taxpayers in an understandable manner how much money they spend on specific programs (including funds spent through contracts, loans, grants, or any other means).
Just imagine if these rules had been in effect when the Say No to Drugs campaign was being funded by the federal government. You and I (and even Congress) would have known much earlier that hundreds of thousands of tax dollars were being wasted on a program that was truly a colossal failure.
Government-wide Data Standards
Under the DATA Act, uniform criteria will be created for the collection of financial data which will be used to create an accurate, comprehensive, and searchable government-wide spending database available at USASpending.gov. Furthermore, the data must now be consistent from year-to-year (no changing of calculations) and it must be reliable (no estimates—just the cold hard facts). But it gets even better. This database is supposed to be easy enough for the average American to use! Doesn’t that sound wonderful? But of course, this will be later determined by whether or not you and I understand how to use the search function provided.
Under the Act, reporting requirements are to be simplified and the cost associated with compliance should be reduced. However, there doesn’t seem to be any information about how this will be accomplished. Thus, I’m not quite certain what this really means, but I’m hoping it means less paperwork and fewer metrics being added after the grant period is half over (something that has happened far too often in the past).
Improved Quality of Data
The federal government purports that the quality of the data that will be available at USASpending.gov will be of a higher quality because it will be more accurate and complete. Additionally, the feds are promising that what is being counted, how it is being counted, and when it is being reported will be standardized across all government programs.
Again, I’m only guessing but I hope that this means that federal employees will be held accountable for the thoroughness and verifiability of their agency’s reports (just like grant recipients have always been).
Section 3 of the DATA Act
Set Reporting Schedule for Release of Data Collected
The Secretary of the Treasury is directed to release data and make it available via the USASpending.gov website on a monthly basis (when practicable) but not less than quarterly for all expenditures by federal agencies. The data is to be posted online and in a searchable, downloadable format. This process must be in place within three years after the enactment of the DATA Act.
This will be great! On a regular basis, anyone will be able to find out just how much money has been allocated or spent on specific programs and projects (and which grantees received the funds). I can’t wait to find out which research projects I wouldn’t have supported receive a million dollars or more in tax funds.
Requires Guidance for Federal Agencies
The act also requires the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director to issue guidance to federal agencies on the new data standards and requires that the Secretary consult with public and private stakeholders when establishing such standards.
This is good news (even if they don’t always take our advice). The federal government is going to keep asking the public for input. Now, it will be up to all of us to response in a timely manner with recommendations if we really want the standards to reflect our needs as grantees.
The DATA Act obligates the Secretary of the Treasury to establish a two-year pilot program to develop recommendations for: (1) standardized reporting elements across the federal government, (2) the elimination of unnecessary duplication in financial reporting, and (3) the reduction of compliance costs for recipients of federal awards. The pilot program must include: (1) a combination of federal contracts, grants, and subawards, with an aggregate value of not less than $1 billion and not more than $2 billion; (2) a diverse group of recipients of federal awards; (3) recipients who receive awards from multiple programs across multiple agencies; and (4) data collected during a 12-month reporting cycle.
While I haven’t heard anything more about this, it appears that those agencies selected to participate in the pilot program are already testing and examining the standardized reporting elements and other issues resulting from the new changes.
After the Pilot Comes a Report
Not later than 90 days after the pilot ends, the Treasury is to submit a report to the House Committees on the Budget and Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committees on the Budget and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that includes: (1) a description of the data collected under the pilot program, its usefulness, and the cost to collect the data from other recipients; and (2) recommendations.
Furthermore, the Inspector General of each federal agency will be required: (1) to review a statistically valid sampling of the spending data that it submitted; and (2) to submit to Congress and make publicly available a report assessing the completeness, timeliness, quality, and accuracy of the data sampled and the implementation and use of data standards by the federal agency.
So, should we all watch the calendar and make certain that the federal government isn’t even one second late on the submission of this report? I think so. Because goodness knows that the Grants.gov website times applicants down to the very second on each and every deadline set by our favorite funding agencies.
Usefulness and Understandability of Data
The Comptroller General (GAO) is to submit a publicly available report to Congress assessing and comparing the data completeness, timeliness, quality, and accuracy of the data submitted under this act by federal agencies and the implementation and use of data standards by federal agencies.
Again, only time will tell if the new data collection plans are better than the old ways—or if the American public (especially grant professionals) will find the data more useful and relevant.
Section 4 of the DATA Act
Just what every American wants to read, another federal government report. But whether we really want one or not, another one is coming our way in the near future. The OMB Director is to make available on the OMB website a financial management status report and government-wide five-year financial management plan.
Quite frankly, this section confuses me. I think that it means that OMB must prepare and get approval for a budget, but I’m not certain. I wonder what exactly is a “government-wide five-year financial management plan,” anyway?
In conclusion, I hope that you now know enough to be at least a little comfortable with the fact that the DATA Act of 2014 really isn’t something to fear. Rather, it is a tool that will hopefully make the lives of grantees better over time because it really should facilitate more accurate data and consistent implementation processes. All of which I’m in total support of!