What we learned at the DATA Act Summit – and why it was our last one


The DATA Act Summit attracted over 700 registrants to explore the suddenly-open world of U.S. federal spending.

On June 26th, our DATA Act Summit set records: our best-attended event ever (738 registrations), with the highest number of speakers we’ve ever featured (66, including six Members of Congress) and the most exhibitors we’ve ever hosted (twenty-five).

But the really important number is 3.85 trillion – the number of U.S. federal dollars spent in 2016 and now tracked and published as open data. The DATA Act’s main deadline finally arrived last May, every federal agency began reporting spending using the same government-wide data format, and the Treasury Department combined their submissions into a single, unified open data set, for the first time in history.

At this fourth annual DATA Act Summit, we no longer had to point to the future and predict the ways open spending data would benefit government and society. The future had come and the benefits were all around us – a world of new ways to visualize, analyze, and automate information about how taxpayers’ money is used.

But we are never going to do this again.

Last month’s DATA Act Summit, presented by Booz Allen Hamilton, was the final one.

Here’s what we learned, and why we will never again host another DATA Act Summit.

For government management, this new data set is the center of everything.

Who’s using the new data set? SBA CFO Tim Gribben, acting DHS CFO Stacy Marcott, NRC CFO Maureen Wylie, and HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary Sheila Conley, to name a few.

Congress may have passed the DATA Act unanimously out of a desire to deliver transparency to American taxpayers. But the real beneficiaries of the law’s mandate for agencies to standardize and publish their spending information are the agencies themselves.

Under the DATA Act, the Treasury Department created a single data structure, the DATA Act Information Model Schema, or DAIMS, that brings budget actions, account balances, grants, contracts, and loans into a single view. The DAIMS is the first, and only, multi-agency, multi-function data structure in the entire government and currently tracks over 400 unique data elements.

Now that they’ve taken the time and investment to translate their disparate, far-flung spending compilations into the DAIMS, agencies can now visualize and analyze their finances in new ways.

In just one day, we learned that Department of Homeland Security leaders intend to use the new data set to target which areas of the vast agency need the most human capital investment – because, for the first time, they can see salary spending by sub-agency and by account. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency will use the new data set to compile its Congressional budget request. And a Health and Human Services IT executive predicted that her department will be able to immediately understand the full scope of resources devoted to combating a large-scale event, like an epidemic.

For the first time, governmentwide executives at the White House have a single, unified view of the scores of billions of dollars spent on software and systems. “The importance of being able to describe that cost cannot be overstated,” said acting federal Chief Information Officer Margie Graves.

Inspectors general at every agency are revving up their data analytics operations – because the new data set gives them a new source for indicators of waste, fraud, and abuse. So is Congress, said Sen. Rob Portman, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations: “We’ll use this data. We’re happy to have it.”

And more uses are coming! The winners of last April’s DATA Act Hackathon showed how the new data set can be used for evidence-based policymaking, tracking the localized impact of grants, scrutinizing procurement, and groundbreaking analytics.

The more the DAIMS is expanded, the more data is put into this unified view, and the more useful the data set will become. Congress must amend the DATA Act to require the DAIMS to go into more granular detail about grants and contracts – right now, only summaries of each award are part of the structure.

The Treasury Department has shown us the best way to run government-wide projects.

The Treasury Department’s all-female DATA Act implementation team, led by Deputy Assistant Secretary Christina Ho (not pictured), delivered the first-ever government-wide picture of federal spending – on time and under budget.

Presidential administrations as far back as Jefferson’s have been demanding a single, “consolidated” view of the federal government’s finances – so that “every member of Congress, and every man of any mind in the Union, should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.”

The DATA Act provided a mandate for the creation of this single view, using a government-wide data standard and a requirement for every agency to follow it.

But it fell to a small team at the Treasury Department, led by Deputy Assistant Secretary Christina Ho, to design the DAIMS, educate CFOs’ offices on how to translate disparate spending information into that common standard, and help all of them meet the May 2017 deadline – mostly without any extra funding.

Ms. Ho and her team succeeded beyond expectation. The project “was on time, it was under budget, and it delivered on its promise. Not many government projects can say that,” said GSA Technology Transformation Service commissioner Rob Cook.

How did they do it? The Treasury team, assisted by specialists from the General Services Administration’s 18F tech development group, conducted the first-ever government-wide agile project. Instead of designing the DAIMS all at once, Treasury “produce[d] successive versions of the schema that incorporate[d] regular feedback from experts across the various communities.”

Fiscal Assistant Secretary David Lebryk, to whom Ms. Ho reports, compared the DATA Act project favorably to Treasury’s 2013 roll-out of the Governmentwide Treasury Account Symbol (GTAS) account reporting system. “We were able to do something in six months that took us four years using a traditional design process—at a fraction of the cost,” Lebryk said.

Next to be transformed? Grantee reporting.

This is the future of federal grantee reporting.

The first version of the DATA Act introduced in Congress in 2011 was bolder than what finally became law in 2014.

The original bill would not just have standardized federal agencies’ spending information. It would have transformed the whole ecosystem of federal grantee reporting, too. The 2011 proposal would have set up a governmentwide data structure to modernize reporting by grant recipients.

The final law stepped back from this vision – and, instead, set up a pilot program to test whether standardized data might help grantees reduce their compliance burden. The pilot program, conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, ended last May, and the White House Office of Management and Budget is going to issue a report to Congress next month to say whether data standardization is a good idea.

At the DATA Act Summit, three panels of experts on grantee and nonprofit compliance told our audience that the grantee reporting ecosystem needs governmentwide data standards.

Kerry Neal, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s grants office, shared a vision of “seamless integration” from grant application, to award, to disbursement, to performance reporting. Today, federal grantees are subject to a hailstorm of duplicative reporting requirements, each involving expensive manual compliance processes. If the government adopted a common data structure for all those reports, software could automate this burden.

Grantee reporting is the next frontier of data standardization – and the discussions at the Summit laid the foundation we’ll need to get it done.

The DATA Act Summit will never happen again.

Booz Allen Hamilton Vice President Bryce Pippert, lead sponsor, closes the Summit.

So why end a good thing?

Because the DATA Act is done. Thanks to the hard work of advocates in Congress and visionaries in the executive branch, standardized and open data is now the centerpiece of the federal government’s financial management.

The work of data standardization is not done. The DAIMS must be expanded to include more of the government’s management information, beyond the basic spending operations it currently covers so well.

As we campaign for future legislative reforms to expand the DAIMS, our programming will expand, too. Expect events focusing on spending and performance data, spending and grant reporting data, spending and oversight data.

At the Data Coalition, we’ve got to keep on moving! Thank you for joining us on this journey.