Open Data on Groundhog Day: Policy Reforms Bring Tech Change … Slowly


Last week, on Feb. 2, leaders from 22 tech companies fanned out across Capitol Hill. We crossed from Senate office buildings to House, and back again. We sat down with eight members of Congress and nine groups of staffers. We walked nearly ten miles. We ended our fourteen-hour day with a well-deserved beer.

This was my sixth Groundhog Day leading the Data Coalition. It resembled the previous five.

Our trade association wants the federal government to modernize its information. Open data must replace documents. Formats must replace forms. Companies and programs should be identified the same ways, across agencies. Separate systems should talk to each other. We started saying this in 2012.

Our mission statement is supremely wonky. Our ambitions aren’t.

By adopting standardized data fields and formats, we’ll make government information transparent to citizens and manageable for agencies. We’ll help companies automate their regulatory reports. We’ll cut compliance costs. We started saying this, too, in 2012.

The Obama Administration spent eight years issuing policy statements about modernizing the government’s information. That was a good thing.

But the really valuable information – the official spending records, the live regulatory reports, the master lists, the official text of bills and laws – hasn’t been modernized yet. Spending, regulation, and legislation are still documents; if open data versions exist, they’re just copies.

Often I hear of internal battles, within agencies, in which innovators who want to replace documents with open data are told ‘no’ – usually by lawyers. The only way to win an argument with lawyers is with law.

That is why Congress has to act. Congress has to require the federal government to express its information as open data, as a matter of law.

We’ve spent five years bringing this message to Capitol Hill. It is not easy. Politicians and technologists do not speak the same language. The benefits of open data are still too abstract. I’ve worn out generations of dress shoes in the Rayburn House Office Building, bringing the same message year on year.

But on this latest Groundhog Day, we could sense a shift.

Social-media evidence of the Data Coalition’s sixth Groundhog Day.

Multiple members of Congress, from both houses and both parties, were eager to meet us. They asked us how federal information is managed now, how legislative changes could create technological change, and how opening data can transform government and society.

Based on our high-mileage day, here’s what we expect will happen in Congress this year.

Our first legislative victory, the passage of the the DATA Act in 2014, will bear fruit in May. That’s when every federal agency must begin reporting its spending as open data. This is a very big deal.

In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson wrote his treasury secretary that federal spending had become too complicated – fractured across so many accounts and categories that Congress and the people could not follow the funds. Jefferson hoped that if the Treasury Department simplified the accounts into “one consolidated mass,” “every member of Congress, and every man of any mind in the Union, should be able to comprehend them, and consequently, to control them.”

The DATA Act extends a consistent data structure across the complexity of federal spending. Come May 2017, the expenditures of the whole executive branch will be “one consolidated mass” – one data set.

On Groundhog Day, we told Congress that it, too, should stop relying on documents and insist on data to inform its appropriations decisions. Agencies will be more likely to deliver reliable spending data if they know that’s what Congress is looking at – rather than the documents which will still persist alongside the data, until we get rid of redundant systems.

Prediction 1: This year the committees that matter will hold hearings on the DATA Act – not just to illuminate some agencies’ failures (which we expect) to deliver reliable spending data, but also to celebrate those agencies getting it right. The House Committee on oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee understand the value of open spending data.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s nominee to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget, is a member of the former. Judging from his confirmation hearings, he understands this too.

We also expect to see new legislation introduced to amend the DATA Act by expanding its open data structure to cover the government’s receipts, as well as its expenditures.

Prediction 2: The Financial Transparency Act, which will require all eight major financial regulatory agencies to adopt open data fields and formats, will be re-introduced. Currently these agencies use non-standardized data fields and unstructured documents to collect information from public companies, banks, markets, and financial firms. If they switch to open data instead, they’ll deliver transparency for investors and markets, enable anti-fraud analytics, and allow automated compliance.

The Financial Transparency Act is the first step toward Standard Business Reporting, in which multiple regulatory agencies adopt consistent data standards, allowing companies’ software to fulfill multiple compliance obligations simultaneously. Standard Business Reporting saves Australian companies $1 billion per year. But it’s nearly unknown in the United States.

We’ll be exploring the Financial Transparency Act at next month’s Financial Data Summit. If you’re interested in modernizing financial regulation – and eventually all regulation -then you should join us on March 16th at the JW Marriott Washington.

Prediction 3: The OPEN Government Data Act will be re-introduced too. The OPEN Government Data Act is a broad mandate for the executive branch to standardize and publish all its information. It’ll lay a foundation for modernizing every area of the government’s vast information portfolio, from energy to health care to defense to customs, to grantmaking, and everything in between.

We could not lead this campaign without support from the tech industry. Our members’ contributions paid for my team’s fourteen-hour Groundhog Day – and also the months of planning, invitations, scheduling, and logistics that brought us here. If your company can do amazing things with data, once it’s expressed that way and not trapped in PDFs, your company should become a member of the Data Coalition.

I’ve been asked what to expect of the Trump Administration. Will open data go dark? Will the Obama Administration’s commitment to transparency and modernization be reversed? I took a first stab at an answer last month.

Our friends at the Sunlight Foundation are tracking open data sets removed from publication since January 20th. So far, the list contains five data sets. If you know of others, please speak up.

But open data is a managerial issue, not a political one. Open data unites strange bedfellowships all across Capitol Hill – from Jim Jordan to Keith Ellison to Ben Sasse to Carolyn Maloney, all of whose offices were part of our itinerary last week.

The reason why nobody created President Jefferson’s “consolidated mass” of spending information until 2017 lies in bureaucracy, not politics. Until the DATA Act, it was nobody’s job to consolidate financial, budget, and award reports – all separately maintained by Treasury, the White House, and the General Services Administration – into one data format. Now, under the DATA Act, there’s a team in charge of realizing Jefferson’s vision.

When Congress passes the Financial Transparency Act, the same will be true for financial regulatory data. Data standards will transform disconnected documents into one consolidated mass – a boon for investors, for agencies, and for regulated companies. Open data could have stopped Bernie Madoff. It will stop future fraudsters.

And the OPEN Government Data Act will make open data the default for all government information, by law.

To enact our wonky agenda and realize our ambitious vision, we may have to invest many more Groundhog Days.

But that’s okay. With each year of the same Capitol Hill treks and similar policy chats, real change is happening.