Guest Blog Post: Why the DATA Act’s New Data Standards Matter

Data Standards

Guest Blog Post: Why the DATA Act’s New Data Standards Matter

This guest blog post comes to us from Mike Wood, who served as Executive Director of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and is now a Director at CGI Federal, a Regular Member of the Data Coalition. Mike and his team will be attending Data Transparency 2016 this Wednesday in Washington. Data Transparency 2016, the nation’s largest open data policy conference, will feature the Treasury Department leadership who are working to implement the DATA Act.

Data standards form one of the foundations for the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) of 2014.

This emphasis on standards builds on the success of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RATB), which achieved significant levels of transparency and accountability using standardized spending data. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for the first time, federal spending data from across the government was easily moved and stored, analyzed and used by a multitude of government and private sector groups.

This guy knows data standards. Data standards are a friend of his.

While serving as the Executive Director of the RATB, it became apparent to me that the success in these key areas was a direct result of standardization. Surprisingly, we concluded that our success in making spending transparent actually assisted us in holding waste, mismanagement and fraud to very low levels. Congress, in passing the DATA Act, extended this work and the transparency success provided by an earlier law, the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act.

In their legislated roles to implement the DATA Act, OMB and Treasury established a robust set of data standards that will assist them in ensuring that federal spending data is useful and comparable. The various federal agencies and vendors supporting these agencies have been active in assisting with the development of these standards and will be responsible for collecting and submitting the standardized data for public display.

With the progress to date, and assuming continued cooperation, I am optimistic that the law’s May 2017 reporting deadline will be met. This was the view of both OMB and Treasury at last spring’s House Oversight Committee hearing on the law. This is no small task given the complexity of federal appropriations, and the multitude of spending by agency programs currently tracked through legacy systems that have been built over the past 25 years. Simply agreeing on terminology for terms used across contracts, grants, and loans is a significant step forward.

Without data standards, data elements can have multiple meanings and two or more terms can refer to the same concept, resulting in confusion. This is a particular problem when comparing a grant program at one agency with one at another agency where the program administration and priorities may be very different.

A lack of standardization makes comparing spending among and between agencies a herculean challenge. Data standards establish agreement on the required content and format in which data are to be presented and exchanged. Using standards is important for providing an ability to exchange data with understandable meaning. This is very important as large amounts of data moves from place to place across the government.

In my view, having established standards for federal spending, additional vistas for transformational change will occur.

  • Unlocking federal spending data will enable digital transformation. The government will modernize how citizens interact and obtain information and services.
  • A single data set of high quality data on federal programs and spending will enable enhanced descriptive and predictive analytics, improving government management and reducing levels of waste, mismanagement, and fraud.
  • Discipline in using standards should reduce the number of forms and types of reports that award recipients must file, reducing reporting burden.
  • Analysis and use of the open data by private-sector entrepreneurs can result in unexpected business opportunities.

Time will tell how well the government implements the DATA Act and how the data will be used. But the establishment of standards is a major step in the right direction.