Redesigning Government Spending: Senate Gives Green Light to DATA

Last Thursday marked an important milestone in open governance: the Senate passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) – a piece of federal legislation designed to leverage open and standardized data to increase accountability and transparency in U.S. Federal government spending and reporting.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced the Senate version of DATA in May 2013, following introduction of a House bill by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) back in June 2011. As many in the open data and open government communities have closely followed DATA and its many iterations through Congress for years now, this news gives cause to celebrate. Having previously argued for enactment of DATA and for its potential to open up and improve government spending (see here), I am personally tremendously excited that the Senate has brought DATA one step closer to becoming law. Here’s why:

What Does The Senate Version of DATA Do?

At its core, DATA amends and expands a key federal spending law passed in 2006 – the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) – to streamline and improve how Federal agencies and federal fund recipients report and share information on government spending. In doing so, it aims to enable “taxpayers and policy makers to track Federal spending more effectively.”

The key provisions of the Senate’s version, in summary, mandate:

Data Standards – i.e., agreed-to formats, representations, and definitions of data. Data standards enable interoperability of data so that different parties collecting or sharing data can uniformly make sense of and leverage that data for improved decision-making and cost-cutting. In other words, data standards provide a common vocabulary to allow data “talk to each other” when collected, mashed-up and analyzed. Data standards have proved vital in the international aid sector, making it easier to compare development data across NGOs and regions, as well as the health care industry, for instance, where cost-saving connections can now be more easily made between clinical, patient and provider information. Related to data standards, DATA specifically provides for:

  • Establishment of government-wide data standards for financial data. Standards development contemplates common data elements for agency- and recipient-reported financial and payment information.
  • Agency adoption of these government-wide data standards in their expenditure reporting.
  • Execution of a pilot project to identify and test the best means of applying government-wide data standards to recipient grant and contract reporting.

Data Publication – i.e. sharing data in accessible ways for regulators, data analysts, journalists, businesses and the public to use to generate new social good and economic insights in industries from education to agriculture to energy. Government publication of data in open formats has fueled economic development and innovation at both the national and local levels of government. Related to open data publication, DATA specifically provides for:

  • Publication of all government spending data – i.e., data relating to grants, loans and contracts at the expenditure-account level – online on USASpending.gov (or any successor website). Notably, publication requirements except classified information and that information protected from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Publication of data to USASpending.gov in open, machine-readable and downloadable formats, consistent with the Administration’s May 2013 Open Data Policy.

Data Quality – i.e. ensuring data is as accurate and useful as possible to enable data-driven decision-making. Enhanced data quality enables business to better mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies, detect and prevent fraud, and has even been found to improve productivity of workers. To enhance financial data quality, DATA provides for:

  • Each Federal agency inspector general and the General Accountability Office to perform audits on the completeness, timeliness, quality, and accuracy of spending data reported by Federal agencies and report on agency use of government-wide data standards.

Public Input – i.e. co-creating solutions by engaging with the public. To do so, DATA provides for:

  • Consultation with public and private stakeholders in establishing the government-wide data standards.

 You can read the Senate’s full legislative text here. (Note: While statutory language tends to be a pretty inaccessible read, the Senate’s bill has a legibility to it that should be applauded.)

Why Should We Celebrate?

At the GovLab, we work to improve people’s lives by promoting innovation in how we make decisions and solve problems. We believe that when institutions leverage new techniques and technologies to work more openly and collaboratively, they can govern more legitimately and effectively.

DATA matters to our mission because, once enacted, it will formalize government use of new techniques and technologies such as data standardization and open data to improve how agencies make decisions on spending taxpayer dollars. Its code ensures that citizens will have open access to accurate, timely and complete data needed to meaningfully participate in oversight and improvement of government spending.

DATA also represents a positive shift in how we think about setting the rules of governance. For instance, DATA’s provision mandating public consultation around data standards demonstrates that our lawmakers get the value in partnering with the public to craft the rules. The provision directing a pilot project to figure out how to standardize recipient data reporting, for example, shows that our elected officials endorse experimentation as a useful tool for figuring out what works first, before setting a policy.

Finally, DATA can serve as a template for agile lawmaking. The Senate bill’s language doesn’t timestamp the bill; rather, it anticipates the ever-evolving technological environment in which we govern. For example, one provision requires that the established data standards “be capable of being continually upgraded as necessary.” Another provision directs that the data be released to the public on “USASpending.gov (or a successor system that displays the data).” This is important considering so many laws on the books today – e.g., The Federal Advisory Committees Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act – limit our ability to use new technology for better and smarter governance by having too narrow or restrictive language, or by having no language at all that anticipates how advances in technology may affect implementation.

What Gives Us Pause?

With that said, the Senate’s version of DATA is far from perfect. As Congress comes together to work out the discrepancies in each version before asking President Obama to sign DATA into law, a few things should be considered:

Enforcement

Earlier versions of the Senate bill imposed shorter deadlines for implementing the Act than the current version. For example, it used to be that agencies had one year to begin reporting spending information using the to-be-adopted data standards. Now they have two.

Additionally, the Senate’s bill has pretty standard “to the extent reasonable and practicable” legalese in it, specifically regarding the mandated considerations for the establishment of government-wide data standards. This introduces a potential “out” for implementers. For instance, while the bill mandates that the established data standards “incorporate a widely accepted, non-proprietary, searchable, platform-independent, computer-readable format” and also “be able to be continually upgraded as necessary” – if either requirement is deemed unreasonable (a subjective judgment, of course) or impracticable (a case can always be made for why something untried won’t work) – it may be excepted.

Leadership

The Senate’s bill gives the Treasury and OMB joint responsibility for carrying out DATA’s provisions. First, not everyone at OMB supported DATA’s data standardization provisions – a critical element of the bill. Furthermore, despite the tech-literacy required to implement and evolve how DATA is effectively and legitimately implemented over time, the bill lacks an express mandate for CTO or CIO involvement.

Citizen-Expert Input

As mentioned, the public consultation provision is key. It ensures that the Director of OMB and the Treasury Secretary will reach beyond the bureaucratic walls of government to figure out, technically, how to do data standardization right. But this provision only extends to the establishment of data standards. What about getting input on implementing those standards? What about evolving those standards?

And what new insights might citizens with expertise in computer and data science and web design offer at low- or no-cost when it comes to designing and implementing the pilot project envisioned to simplify and standardize recipient reporting? Re-envisioning how we track, report and streamline government spending in practice demands a more sustained dialogue with citizen experts.

It’s Not all Government Spending Data

Finally, the Senate’s bill only requires that information at the appropriation-account level be standardized and published openly; the law’s mandate doesn’t reach payment-level account data. This means we’d get a clearer view of much of our government’s spending, but not all.

Passage in the House and now Senate of legislation that champions open and standardized data in an environment as critical as government spending undoubtedly counts as a victory in our quest to open up and improve governance. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that enacting DATA is only half the battle. Ensuring that we can meaningfully practice open government spending over time requires us to push now to make certain the best pieces of both versions make it into law.

Want to Learn More?

For more background information on DATA and its passage, check out:

Who Supports DATA?

  • DATA has had bipartisan support in Congress since its introduction in the House in 2011.
  • Hudson Hollister from the Data Transparency Coalition – a group of public and private entities that support open data and government transparency – has expressed much support for the bill since its introduction and can be credited for helping to draft the original House version of DATA.
  • Tech companies also want DATA passed. See here and here.
  • Advocacy groups such as the Sunlight Foundation have also expressed support for the bill along with 24 other organizations that have formally written to Congress.

Who Doesn’t?

  • The only real opposition to DATA has come from the White House Office of Management and Budget prior to DATA’s passage in the Senate, with attempts to remove key data standardization provisions of DATA (see here and here and here).
    • Notably, this opposition, which seems contradictory to the Obama Administration’s position on open data has been explained by Danny Werfel, Controller of OMB. Werfel expressed the view that the bill creates “a new layer of regulation, two sets of rules and additional regulatory complexity” when the Administration is already “leading in the open government area.” Werfel also mentioned that OMB is considering “a standard, government-wide award identifier code without the need for legislation.”
  • Note: The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) expressed opposition to an earlier House version of the bill in April 2013, particularly to the reporting demands it would impose on cash-strapped state recipients recovering from the recession. Notably, however, the NCSL in its opposition advocated for “phased-in conversion” to a new reporting system for fund recipients – something both the final House version and the Senate version contemplates through creation of a pilot program. The National Governors Association also expressed opposition to an earlier House bill in April 2013, noting: “Without funding for state compliance, governors cannot implement the bill and therefore do not support the passage of the DATA Act. Governors encourage Congress to work with them to develop a more workable solution that meets the needs of states.”
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