GAO’s Dodaro endorses DATA Act to resolve government accounting difficulties, stimulate tech sector: “Without legislation … it won’t happen.”


At a July 10 House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Chairman Darrell Issa asked U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro for an opinion on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act). The DATA Act will transform U.S. federal spending from inaccessible documents into open data by imposing government-wide data standards and expanding the scope and detail of the current spending transparency portal, USASpending.gov. Dodaro leads the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. government’s independent auditor and watchdog.
The Comptroller General told Rep. Issa: “I’m very supportive of the DATA Act.”
Dodaro explained that by imposing government-wide data standards, the DATA Act will allow the U.S. government to accurately track interagency payments, which today present the main obstacle to a clean audit of  federal financial statements. Moreover, the DATA Act will offer new opportunities for innovative tech companies by creating an accurate open data set that covers all federal spending – a data set that will support citizen-facing and government-facing apps. “[W]ithout legislation,” Dodaro said, “this won’t happen.”
Dodaro also stressed the need for data standards for the federal government’s efforts to track its performance. Without such basic data standards as a government-wide program identifier, Dodaro said, the current performance transparency portal, Performance.gov, will not become fully searchable.

In May, the House Oversight Committee passed the DATA Act for consideration by the full House of Representatives. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Mark Warner and Rob Portman, but the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction, has not yet decided whether to consider it.

Dodaro’s exchange with Rep. Issa is below and begins at 24:45 of the hearing video.



Issa: … Had the DATA Act been passed, with government systems being required to have meaningful metadata, so that in fact there’s … transparency, would that have approved this government-to-government accounting?


Dodaro: Having data standards, and that included in the DATA Act, and regular reporting, would have been very beneficial to addressing these issues. And that information then could be, and should be, tied to the financial systems in the agencies … having more rigor in place. I’m very supportive of the DATA Act that’s been put forward. I commend the Committee for its role in that area. I think without legislation it won’t happen and I think that’s very important and would be helpful in addressing these issues.
Issa: … You mentioned the deficiencies in the government-wide website [Performance.gov]. Is part of that deficiency in fact that without meaningful structured data, you’re really not producing rich data in an automated way, but rather posting to the website as though it was an advertisement? Not trying to belittle it, but isn’t that a certain amount of what that website is? Is [that] manually-grabbed information posted to try to make people aware of what’s going on?
Dodaro: Yeah. The website – if you look at it, there’s a lot of information on it, but it’s hard to find exactly what you need. And it’s not as searchable, for example, as the Recovery.gov website. And I think more effort needs to be put into making sure people understand how the public and the Congress and other people want to use the information. It’s not very user-friendly.
Issa: … When we’re looking at the 21st century, the word “website” versus [a] data-minable database available to the public, isn’t there a huge difference, in which a website is fine for a novice to go search, and hopefully find the form they need, or the information they need, while if we were to mandate truly data-minable [data]bases, then companies and innovators who want to create these Apple apps and so on could in fact mine that data, that public data, and make it available in very easy format at no cost to the government?
Dodaro: Exactly. I think there’s great opportunities to make government data available to enhance the ability of people – researchers,  companies, and others, the public – to use that information. The one thing we pointed out – whether we’re looking at USASpending.gov, the DATA Act, Data.gov, Performance.gov – is the quality of the information and the reliability and accuracy of the data. That, I think, is paramount, and that always isn’t really sure, Mr. Chairman. And that’s, I think, a real limitation. We can make a lot of data available, but if it’s not as reliable and accurate as possible, it’s not as helpful as possible.
Issa: When we’re trying to look for examples that do work, would one of those examples, perhaps, be where the FAA opened up the core data of where aircraft are within the system, so that people could track their incoming flight with apps that were made available after the fact? My understanding is that both weather and FAA are examples of data that has become available for independent development.
Dodaro: I’d have to get back to you on that.