University leaders: Federal DATA Act redundant, expensive
A bill making its way through Congress would digitize and consolidate the system used to track federal spending, but the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities says it duplicates existing systems and adds another layer of expense to critical university research projects.
The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act — or DATA Act — would apply tracking requirements similar to those attached to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to federal grants, loans, contracts and the internal expenses of every federal agency.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform cleared the bill June 22 after a mark-up session. It now awaits action on the full House floor.
Rep. Darrell Issa, D-Calif., who chairs the Oversight Committee said the DATA Act would bring financial transparency for every government agency into the digital age, leaving behind the cumbersome process of procuring paper records in favor of a centralized database.
The problem with that, though, is that Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning is already in the process of establishing a database that serves an identical purpose, said Don Zant, vice president for budget and planning at Mississippi State University. The IHL, per the terms of a law passed in the last legislative session, must have the database up and running by July 1, 2012. Like its potential federal sister, the state database would track spending by every state agency, and offer searchable, customizable results. Individual transactions would be available, to go with full audits and reports. The transactions have to be on the website within 14 days of the applicable action. The database would include records starting with fiscal year 2010.
IHL spokesperson Caron Blanton said getting the database operational will cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars “but most likely won’t exceed $500,000.” That figure does not include regular maintenance once the site is up and running.
Zant told the Mississippi Business Journal in an interview last Monday that even without the state mandate to formulate a database that would track the spending and results of every research project at Mississippi universities, there already exist several levels of federal oversight. Any university that receives federal funding for any purpose is subject to annual audits.
“Not only that, but pick a federal agency – transportation, education, public safety, you name it. They will do audits or monitoring visits for these projects,” Zant said. “It happens all the time. Plus the IHL already consolidates all the audits for the public universities, and they’re available for anybody to see. There’s already a lot of scrutiny and accountability.
“If we have to turn around and develop another database just like the one we’re already building, you’re talking about another major expense.”
The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities and the Council on Government Relations cited preliminary data being gathered by the Federal Demonstration Partnership, a cooperative initiative among federal agencies, that ARRA’s reporting requirements for university research-related money cost $87 million for 100 research institutions that were awarded the grants. According to the same figures, that comes to $7,900 per research award.
“The cost of control should never outweigh the benefit you’re going to receive,” Zant said. “If we already do this on a state level, what benefit would we get from doing the same thing because of a federal law? I think the intentions are good, but it’s possibly a lack of understanding of the controls already in place.
“Accountability and transparency are great, and we have to have it, but duplicating it on two different levels is just unnecessary and will be extremely expensive.”