This Tuesday morning the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the full Fiscal Year 2017 budget request. This first fiscal shot across the bow establishes President Obama’s vision for how the Executive branch will be managed at the end of his second term. It expresses his legacy priorities by assigning dollar values.
More than any policy statement or hearing testimony could, the budget shows how the Obama Administration views the implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act).
And for supporters of open data, the news is mixed.
Judging from budget requests, the Treasury Department remains animated with a bold vision to transform federal spending from disconnected documents into standardized, fully-searchable data. But OMB’s budget requests suggest it still fails to prioritize DATA Act implementation on par with other competing information technology and financial management priorities.
Office of Management and Budget Doesn’t Prioritize DATA Act Implementation
In the President’s opening statement, “A Government of the Future”, we see positive platitudes that are aligned with the Data Coalition’s policy mission. The Administration reaffirms the President’s commitment to “improving the service we provide to the American public”, “bring[ing] more value and efficiency to how we use taxpayer dollars”, and “opening Government data… to the private sector to drive innovation
and economic growth.” The DATA Act, if done right, will do all three of those things.
But there exist no specific budget items that show how the White House’s own OMB will be working to support DATA Act implementation.
Specifically, in the Executive Office of the President’s budget request, the OMB Office of Federal Financial Management requested flat funding at $3 million and makes no specific reference to the DATA Act, despite this office’s central role supporting “effective and transparent use of Federal financial resources by improving the quality, utility, and transparency of financial information” (see pg. 1163). Additionally, OMB’s Information Technology Oversight and Reform activities saw a $5 million requested increase (over $30 million FY16) for various federal IT improvement projects (E.G., IT improvements, FITARA implementation, USDS expansion, and cybersecurity). Yet again, there is no mention of DATA Act work.
Moving along to broader vision documents, in Chapter 17 – Information Technology of the analytical perspectives addendum to the President’s budget, we merely see a nod to the existing “open data commitment” (I.E., the Presiden’ts Open Data policy, expressed in his landmark Executive Order 13624 and M-13-13), but nothing expressing this open data commitment for federal spending – which is what the DATA Act mandates.
The Executive Office of the President doesn’t completely ignore the DATA Act in its budget request. Chapter 15 – Aide to State and Local Governments cites the DATA Act as a critical law signed by the President that will “help improve the transparency of Federal grants oversight and spending by setting data standards and by improving the way the data can be accessed” (see pg. 272). The Administration does seem to understand the value of the DATA Act’s standardization of grantee financial reporting: it promises that grantees will be able to automate their reports!
Treasury Affirms its DATA Act Leadership, Seeks Financial Aid Fund to Help Other Agencies
Looking into specific Departmental budget requests, we arrive at a key player: the Treasury Department. The DATA Act requires the Treasury Department, working alongside OMB, to establish government-wide data standards for federal spending and publish all of that information, once standardized, on an expanded version of the USASpending.gov portal.
Judging from this week’s budget requests, the Treasury Department understands and embraces its government-wide role.
The great news is that Treasury continues to support DATA Act implementation work under their Fiscal Service account which was appropriated a fund of $19,800,000 in FY16 to remain available through the end of FY18. Treasury’s budget request clearly describes the Fiscal Service’s programmatic mission: “promote the financial integrity and operational efficiency of the U.S. Government through exceptional accounting, financing, collections, payments, and shared service…The Budget also provides resources to support the Bureau’s government-wide leadership role in spending transparency including necessary technology upgrades as well as continued implementation efforts to support the execution of the DATA Act” (see pg. 1039).
On top of this strong indicator of mission orientation, the Department has requested that $3,000,000 be made available in its Treasury Franchise Fund for the first time in FY17 for the “provision of necessary financial and administrative support services by the Administrative Resource Center to implement requirements of the…[DATA Act] for Federal agencies…in addition to any other amounts available for such purpose” (see pg. 1024). This request shows how Treasury, as a government-wide financial shared service provider, is positioned to help their customer agencies comply with the DATA Act’s mandate to report standardized spending data.
And lastly, underscoring the DATA Act’s waste, fraud, and abuse reducing effects, the Treasury’s budget request includes an additional $2 million in funding for the Office of Inspector General (over the $35,000,000 FY16 budget) to fund “critical audit, investigative, and other mission support activities” to meet the requirements of a number of statutes, including the DATA Act.
Simply put, the Treasury Department puts its money where its mouth is. Implementing the DATA Act matters to Treasury’s leadership; that’s why it appears prominently throughout the department’s budget requests.
Notable Agency Requests: Transportation, Energy, Interior, HHS
Last May, OMB issued its Fiscal Year 2017 budget request guidance memorandum (M-15-11, May 1, 2015) with explicit direction for agencies to “continue to invest in” the key pillars of the President’s Government of the Future Management Agenda (M-14-12) (E.G., Open Data, Smarter IT Delivery, Shared Services, etc.). Unlike OMB’s own budget requests this week, last May’s guidance added that FY17 agency requests should have “a particular focus on” seven priorities including DATA Act implementation.
Some agencies followed OMB’s budget request guidance and specifically cited the DATA Act in their requests. Leading the charge is the Department of Transportation (DOT) with a strong $4 million request under the specific heading of DATA Act Compliance to achieve “changes in business processes, workforce, or information technology to support high quality, transparent Federal Spending information” (pg. 943). The Transportation request also states that this funding should not replace existing DATA Act activities and that $0.5 million would be made available for compliance aid for sub-agencies. With similar wording, the Energy Department also again requests $3 million under the Departmental Administration account to support implementation activities (pg. 436). Energy also directly links implementation as a duty under the Chief Financial Officer (see pg. 437). Also noteworthy is how the Department of the Interior makes direct reference to DATA Act implementation compliance activities as a function of their centralized Interior Business Center (IBC) that receives a 66% increase in requested funding over FY16 levels (FY17 request $111,524,000) (see pg. 731).
Readers of the Coalition’s blog will recall that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a critical DATA Act leadership role. HHS leads the grants-related half of the DATA Act’s Section 5(b) pilot program to test whether data standards can simplify recipient reporting.
HHS’ budget request asks for $10,320,000 to support these implementation activities under their General Departmental Management activities by stating clearly how HHS “plays a crucial role in the implementation of the Act and has been designated as the leader for grants standardization” (see pg. 502). We could not have said it more succinctly.
This is all to point out those agencies making an effort to get the support they need to implement the DATA Act. However, given this progress, it is critical to note that for FY16, both DOT and HHS had requested funding for DATA Act compliance activities ($3,000,000 and $10,320,000 respectively), yet Congress ultimately did not appropriate any FY16 funds under the omnibus budget agreement.
Congress, too, needs to put its money where its mouth is. Having required the executive branch to transform its spending into open data, Congress should entertain requests for funding to do that.
We don’t believe DATA Act implementation needs to be expensive. And the benefits gained from better accountability, better management, and automated compliance will far outweigh the costs. But Congress should recognize those costs.
Conclusion and Next Steps
Since the President’s budget request is just that, a request, the numbers above are in no way final. In fact, some in Congress would say this request is dead on arrival. However, this budget package is a very important indicator of how entities like the White House’s OMB, Treasury, and federal agencies are prioritizing their activities in a constrained fiscal environment. For niche priorities such as DATA Act implementation, this is insightful and helpful to the extent that it presents initiatives in Treasury, DOT, and HHS to build upon and further shape with Congressional oversight.
Now that the White House has presented their $4,234,877,000,000 executive budget authority request, the legislative branch must agree internally on a topline budget resolution and set the discretionary spending limits for each of the twelve appropriation bills. We expect to see March and April consumed with Congressional hearings reviewing this budget request as Congressional leadership works to pass their budget packages through committees before July.
Throughout this process that the Coalition will equip our Congressional allies with the insights they need to review and question the extent to which the executive branch is prioritizing DATA Act implementation and encourage them to refocus funding where applicable. You can trust that the Coalition will follow this process closely as we look build upon the progress summarized above.