Even opponents of the $840 billion economic stimulus program launched in 2009 have found reason to cheer the activities of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which was created to track every dollar spent.
"The whole Recovery.gov effort has been a great success. I’m taking no positive shots at how they spent their money, because I don't think it created jobs. But it accounted for funding in a more transparent way than ever before, and did so on a small budget," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said at an event hosted by the Data Transparency Coalition on Sept. 10.
The General Accountability Office has released a report documenting the lessons the Office of Management and Budget and cabinet agencies could learn from the experience of the board. It's timely, in light of the Data Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act currently wending its way through Congress, and with a recent OMB memo advising changes to the way government publishes financial data.
GAO recommended adopting the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board practice of using single government-wide identifiers to track contracts, grants, loans, and awards, and standardizing data reporting requirements.
"The availability of standardized data ... allowed the Recovery Board to use data analytics and predictive analysis to detect, prevent, and remediate the fraudulent use of Recovery Act funds," GAO wrote.
Input from multiple sources was key in developing data reporting standards, the GAO found. Weekly calls between OMB, the board, and state and local officials helped to establish reporting practices. "Without a systematic approach for receiving and processing recipients’ input ... issues that could affect recipients’ ability to meet new reporting requirements could go unaddressed, compromising the ability of recipients to provide accurate data," GAO cautioned.
Finally, GAO suggested that legislation rather than executive order would be preferable in clarifying lines of authority for creating reporting standards and implementing them across government. "[T]ransitions and inconsistent leadership, which can occur as administrations change, can weaken the effectiveness of any collaborative efforts, and result in a lack of continuity," the report said.
There is significant overlap between the DATA Act and a June memo from the Office of Federal Financial Management on financial data reporting. The Obama administration also included plans to move the USASpending.gov apparatus from OMB to the Treasury, as envisioned by the DATA Act, in its 2014 budget. If some form of the DATA Act passes the House, as is expected, and moves in the Senate, where it was introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), it would go a long way toward fulfilling the guidance of the GAO on financial data transparency.
(By Adam Mazmanian)