Capitol Hill Panel Discusses the DATA Act and Federal Spending Transparency


The Sunlight Foundation convened a Capitol Hill meeting of its Advisory Committee on Transparency on Monday for a panel discussion on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) and federal spending transparency.

The panel brought together a number of constituencies that have a stake in open data reform, including perspectives from the executive branch, non-profit sector, business and academia.

Kaitlin Devine, a Senior Web Developer at the Sunlight Foundation, moderated the discussion. Devine spoke from her experience in attempting to do research on federal spending through the flawed USASpending.gov website. Besides the poor data quality presented on the site, she noted that it is neither searchable nor under the supervision of any one office or agency.

“We at the [Recovery] Board have come to believe that it will take a law,” to achieve real open data reform, said Nancy DiPaolo, who serves as the Chief of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. DiPaolo, who also spoke at a Coalition breakfast earlier this month, drew on her agency’s experience of using internal analytics processes to produce reliable data about stimulus spending and Hurricane Sandy relief. She also noted how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) improved upon existing requirements under the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA). For example, whereas FFATA permits location data about grant performance to be associated with either a national headquarters, regional branch, or worksite, the ARRA specified that the data must be connected to the location of the actual work.

Hudson Hollister, the Data Transparency Coalition’s Executive Director, explained how the DATA Act is designed to build upon the existing FFATA legislation to require standardized, interoperable data. He mentioned that there are currently eight disconnected reporting requirements across various agencies. The existing process is not only inefficient, said Hollister, but it undermines the goals of collecting the data in the first place. For example, the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Management and Budget do not even agree on how many federal agencies exist.

The DATA Act would help citizens get solid answers about how their tax dollars are allocated. The landmark open data legislation would also provide much clearer insight about other domains of government information besides spending — such as regulatory, legislative, and judicial activity.

Navin Beekarry, an Associate Fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Law, Economics, and Science, discussed the possibility of establishing a new government-wide identifier for grant recipients. The Treasury Department is pursuing the adoption of the Legal Entity Identifier (LEI), which is non-proprietary, for financial regulatory reporting. Transparency advocates hope that Treasury might also adopt the LEI for recipients of federal grants and contracts.

As the panel concluded, a bipartisan, bicameral quartet of legislative leaders published an op-ed hailing the House of Representative’s recent 388-1 passage of the DATA Act and calling on the Senate to follow suit. The four DATA Act sponsors — Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) — cited historically low trust in government as a compelling reason to provide greater transparency about how Americans’ tax dollars are spent.