DATA Act Summit Recap: Federal Government on Track for Spending Transformation


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Coalition Executive Director Hudson Hollister addresses the DATA Act Summit.

On June 10, the Data Transparency Coalition hosted its largest event to date. Our second annual DATA Act Summit, presented by Workiva, boasted over 600 registrants, over 30 federal agencies, and 25 exhibiting companies.

The idea behind the DATA Act of 2014 is simple enough: transform federal spending information from disconnected documents into open data.

Today, most federal spending information is stored in formats suitable for humans to read but unsearchable and difficult for software developers to compute with. The DATA Act requires the federal government to (1) make this information fully searchable and computable by applying data standards–consistent formats and common data fields–and then (2) publish the whole corpus so it’s freely available to all. The whole project must be complete sometime in 2018.

But when you take this simple idea and scale it up to the size of the “biggest entity in the world,” — as David Lebryk, the fiscal assistant Treasury secretary, called the federal government this week — you’ve got a monumental task. Nobody has ever tried to take the whole complicated structure of federal government spending and impose a consistent data structure on top of it.

There is good news: the Summit made clear that if the DATA Act works the way it’s meant to, almost every job that has anything to do with federal spending will get easier. If the DATA Act’s consistent data structure is successfully built and applied — agencies will use analytics to illuminate and eliminate waste and fraud, citizens will track the entire life cycle of federal spending, and grantees and contractors will automate their reporting.

The DATA Act Summit showed broad enthusiasm, inside and outside government, for doing this.  But there are undeniable challenges ahead.

Congress must stay involved.

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Sen. Mark Warner (L) delivers a keynote address, moderated by GovLoop founder Steve Ressler (R).

The DATA Act is a complicated management mandate requiring every single federal agency to adopt consistent data standards for the information it reports. That can’t happen without proactive engagement from the Congressional supporters who delivered the bill last year. Congress must oversee implementation, pursue follow-up legislative changes if needed, and provide enough funding–for years to come.

At the Summit, Senator Mark Warner, the DATA Act’s first Senate champion, acknowledged this. He promised to seek full funding for the DATA Act’s implementation and called it just a “first step” towards full federal spending transparency.

Government Executive’s Charles S. Clark reported on Senator Warner’s keynote address:

Every president talks up the need to manage results using data, Warner said, but then the priority slips. Given the government’s $18.5 trillion debt, stretched entitlement programs and inefficient tax code, Warner said, “The challenges on the fiscal side will be with us for the foreseeable future, no matter who’s in charge. We need data on how we govern to create efficiencies. We no longer have the ability to throw money without measuring results.”

Agencies must fully implement the data standards.

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Christina Ho, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Transparency, explains DATA Act implementation plans.

On May 8, 2015, the Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced the data standards: 57 data elements and a schema that unites them. These standards will govern all federal spending information and make the documents-to-data transformation possible.

The Summit’s audience of more than 30 federal agencies shows just how serious and fundamental the May 8 announcement was. Starting in 2017, the DATA Act standards are going to mandatory, and existing government-wide systems used to collect spending information–Treasury’s GTAS for finance and PIR for payments, OMB’s MAX for budgets, and systems managed by Treasury and the General Services Administration for grants and contracts–will be changed to adhere to them.

FCW’s Zach Noble reported on the Summit’s Executive Panel, which featured OMB’s Karen Lee, Treasury’s Christina Ho, and the Government Accountability Office’s Chris Mihm:

The big question facing agencies following enactment of the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, Mihm noted, was “to go small and compliant or go big and value-added.” He said he has been impressed to see most going with the latter, better-in-the-long-run option.

Michael Horowitz, who chairs the government-wide Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), told the audience that inspectors general need detailed data to do their jobs. To achieve program-level insights, they need high-quality program-level spending data–which, if all goes well, the DATA Act will deliver:

 

The stakes are high.

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Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader (L) and Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist (R) provide left- and right-leaning perspectives on government transparency.

Government transparency is a core component of effective representative democracy.

Speaking together at the Summit, Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist agreed, despite representing opposing left-wing and right-wing ideologies, that the DATA Act could provide the necessary access to government spending data on publicly accessible platforms for citizens to hold the government accountable for its spending activities.

Open data gives everyone the ability to analyze and measure their government’s performance. And measurement is the lifeblood of science and progress. But such analysis is only possible when the information is presented in formats that computers can read. When government information is standardized and published it can be replicated with perfect quality, at almost no cost, and delivered instantaneously.

The DATA Act is on track to transform government spending.

Opening up federal spending data will let us measure our government in ways we never could before. As Sen. Warner noted, the DATA Act is indeed a “first step” toward standardizing the immense volume of government information in order to find new patterns, relationships, indicators, as well as detect fraud and abuse. This will profoundly enhance the effectiveness of government.

We are especially grateful for the support of our sponsors and partners. Workiva, PwC, RDG Filings, Teradata, Booz Allen Hamilton, Dun & Bradstreet, StreamLink, Socrata, Grant Thornton, the Association of Government Accountants, and ACT-IAC all helped us to put on this program.

The DATA Act is on track to transform government spending. Years of work lie ahead, but supporters are determined and the benefits are compelling.