Time for Agency Data Quality Plans Comes and Goes with Little to Show

The Open Government Directive (OGD) issued on December 8, 2009 included a mandate that all agencies create a data quality plan that enhanced the transparency of how agencies spend federal funds.  Two weeks ago, these plans were supposed to be finalized and released to the public but so far we can only find one agency’s plan.

On Feb. 8, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Deputy Director Jeff Zients issued a memo outlining a timeline for public release as well as what information should be contained in the data quality plans.  Data quality plans were due to OMB by April 14.  OMB was to work with agencies to improve their plans and finalize them by May 14.

The OGD required that agencies to be accountable for the quality of federal spending information that is publicly disseminated through public venues such as USASpending.gov and similar websites.  The plans were to address problems agencies currently encounter with this information.  These include duplicate data, missing data and transactions, inaccurate data, and untimely data.

Now, two-weeks after the finalization date, the only plan we have been able to find is that created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  EPA’s plan is a good review of what the agency current does to ensure data quality.  However, the plan leaves much to be desired and we hope that it is not a sign of things to expect from other agencies.

There’s plenty of room for improvement in this plan.  EPA’s plan could do more to give the public a full understanding of their efforts to enhance their capacity for data quality improvement instead of simply outlining its current practices.  For instance, there is no mention of participation and collaboration plans to gather feedback from the public as required by Zients’ Feb. 8 memo.  In identifying deficiencies in their process to ensure completeness of federal spending information, EPA does not provide possible solutions or list the steps they are taking to remedy them.  I’m also not sure what EPA means when it identifies “the possibility that information would be used for purposes it was not designed for” as a risk of information release.  That’s not a legitimate risk of releasing information.  The release of personally identifiable information, which is a legitimate worry, is not even mentioned.

In discussing their current program of monitoring for data quality we see a couple of things the EPA could do to enhance transparency.  First, the EPA mentions compliance reviews performed in each contracting office at least once every three years through its Quality Assessment Plan.  How about making the results of these reports public?  Secondly, it discusses quarterly reports distributed by the Office of Acquisition Management concerning year-to-date acquisition data.  Releasing this information to the public in a collaborative and participatory way can dramatically help the agency improve its existing program.  However, the plan makes no mention of efforts to do so.

EPA can still improve its plan and hopefully the plans that come forth from other agencies will go further.  Still, EPA should be applauded for at least coming out with a plan on time.  It remains unclear as to whether agencies met their deadline to report to OMB and if OMB has provided feedback to all agencies concerning their plans.  The White House's open government dashboard does not track agency progress on the plans.

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