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Published on 09/26/2006

GAO Fails to Adequately Assess the Data Quality Act

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report on how well major federal agencies are implementing and overseeing compliance with the Data Quality Act (DQA). The report is an excellent overview of DQA's use, but it fails to make recommendations necessary to improving the management of DQA impacts on the federal government, in particular to minimizing its potential abuse.

The Data Quality Act (DQA), also known as the Information Quality Act (IQA), is a two-paragraph provision that slipped through Congress without debate in late 2000. Since then it has amassed a mountain of controversy, pitting industry against the public interest. The act allows private parties to challenge the government's use of information and has been used with particular frequency by industry to challenge health and environmental regulations.

The report, the full title of which is the unwieldy Information Quality Act: Expanded Oversight and Clearer Guidance by the Office of Management and Budget Could Improve Agencies' Implementation of the Act, was the culmination of a year-long review of DQA by GAO at the request of Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bart Gordon (D-TN). The report recommended that OMB:

  1. work with DHS to implement DQA guidelines;
  2. identify other agencies without DQA guidelines and work with them to implement such guidelines; and
  3. clarify its guidance to agencies on improving access to DQA information online.
According to the report, DHS is the only agency that has not issued DQA guidelines. GAO also found problems associated with accessing information on DQA guidelines at other agencies. The report noted that "none of the agencies we visited had information about the actual workload, the number of staff days, or other costs, with one exception" The one exception was the Department of Labor, which had only one cost item tracked--a $170,000 contract to monitor the status of DQA requests.

Waxman and Gordon requested the GAO investigation in order to determine the effectiveness of DQA and how great a regulatory burden it creates, so it is surprising that GAO did not address either of these issues, nor did the report make recommendations to improve shortcomings in these areas. Without management procedures to monitor costs associated with the DQA process, it will be impossible for GAO, OMB, Congress or the federal agencies to determine the effectiveness of DQA guidelines.

The DQA process has been widely misused by industry to slow regulatory action and remove or revise important public health and environmental information from government websites. For instance, the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health has received numerous challenges of its Report on Carcinogens, which lists over 1,700 potentially carcinogenic chemicals.

Many such challenges are widely recognized as frivolous, and each increases regulatory burden such that the effectiveness of government programs is harmed. Without outlining mechanisms to assess the effects of DQA, the report fails in its assignment to detect such problems and determine if DQA guidelines need to be revised to curtail the potential abuse of DQA.