Where’s the beef? “Federal Engagement in Standards” memo stays vague


From his first full day in office, President Obama and his administration have consistently signaled that the federal government’s data must be standardized. The President and his appointees are quite correct. Without common identifiers and markup languages for spending data, regulatory filings, legislative actions, and other types of government information, full transparency will remain elusive.

But open-government advocates are right to ask, “Where’s the beef?” The administration has yet to direct agencies to standardize a specific category of data, or to call on Congress to deliver standards legislation to the President’s desk.

The administration made its latest statement of support for standards on January 17, when the Executive Office of the President released a memo on the subject to the heads of every federal agency. This memo, titled “Principles for Federal Engagement in Standards Activities to Address National Priorities,” has an impressive pedigree. It’s signed by Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs; Aneesh Chopra, then Chief Technology Officer of the United States; and Deputy United States Trade Representative Miriam Santo.

Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo call on agencies to work with the private sector to develop and implement standards “where a national priority has been identified in statute, regulation, or Administration policy.” But they stay impressively vague. Nowhere does their memo identify any specific “national priority” that requires the development and implementation of data standards.

Surely the transparent tracking of federal grants and contracts qualifies as a national priority. Last December, President Obama’s appointed Government Accountability and Transparency Board recommended that the government standardize the identification codes that are assigned to grants and contracts. Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo did not mention this worthy – and very achievable – goal.

Surely the reform of our financial system qualifies as a national priority. House Republicans and Democrats came together in 2010 to support amendments to the Dodd-Frank law that would have imposed common markup languages on all the data that the financial regulators collect from the industry, so that all of the data would become machine-readable. But Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo did not mention the promise and possibility of financial data standardization.

Surely the efficient administration of our social welfare programs qualifies as a national priority – and this is an area where President Obama deserves credit. Last month, he signed legislation that will impose common identification codes and markup languages on reports that states and employers must file with the federal government describing how social welfare and unemployment funds are spent. There is more to be done; the House Ways and Means Committee has proposed to standardize all federal reporting in its jurisdiction in the same way. But Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo did not greet the Ways and Means Committee’s call for improving program management through standardized reporting.

The President and his administration have a valuable opportunity this year to add meat to their frequent call for data standardization by endorsing specific projects and legislation. Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo didn’t.