Open Data Law Aims To Demystify Federal Spending

Landmark DATA legislation, near passage, would transform the US government's spending information from a maze of confusing documents into easily accessible open data.



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Both houses of Congress stand poised to pass a law three years in the making that would standardize how the federal government's spending data are published. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), regarded by some observers as the most significant open-government legislation since the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, would transform the US government's spending information from a maze of confusing documents into easily accessible open data.

The new law would require the federal government to automate, standardize, and publish its myriad financial management, procurement, and related data in electronic formats that can be easily accessed and analyzed by interested parties in the public and private sectors.

Among its most important reforms, the legislation would expand the USAspending.gov site to include spending data for all federal funds, set government-wide financial data standards, and reduce reporting costs for entities that are awarded taxpayer dollars, the bill's sponsors said.

[Legislation would make it easier for business and the public to follow government money. See DATA Act, Pushing Spending Transparency, Regains Steam.]

The DATA Act is expected to pass the Senate this week and the House shortly thereafter, say analysts at the Data Transparency Coalition, a Washington-based trade group. The legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Robert J. Portman (R-Ohio), and in the House by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

Standardizing electronic publishing of federal data would benefit the government in a number of ways, for example by mandating greater transparency, reducing the long-term costs of data compliance, and improving information sharing to make timelier management decisions. Specifically, the law would transform federal reporting requirements related to financial accounts, budget actions, payment requests, and reports from grant and contract recipients into easily accessed open data.

IT entrepreneurs and businesses are keenly interested in the effort because it will allow them to automate, republish, and analyze federal data more easily. The success of the DATA Act, however, will depend in large part on whether the White House (the Obama administration and those that follow it) will insist that federal agencies comply promptly and completely with the statutory components of the legislation, said the Data Transparency Coalition, a Washington-based trade group. A number of federal agencies and offices will have key roles to play in complying with the law and carrying forward its reforms, including the departments of Commerce and Treasury, the General Services Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget.

The most important duties will rest with Treasury and OMB. The bill's provisions did become a source of controversy earlier this year when OMB tried to remove key requirements from the Senate's version of the bill. Specifically, OMB sought to eliminate mandates requiring standardization and consolidation of published material, to remove expenditure transparency, to stop internal usage of the data within government, and to block Congress from holding agencies accountable for data quality, according to a document leaked to the news media, and reported by Federal News Radio.

Moreover, OMB sought to have the bill modified so that it replaced the Treasury Department as the lead agency responsible for overseeing implementation of the new law. The leaked document sparked an immediate response in the form of a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee signed by 18 watchdog and open government groups, which said the revisions suggested by OMB "would hollow out the DATA Act's central purpose: to transform federal spending from disconnected documents into open data -- standardized, structured, and available to citizens and policy makers."

"The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act," Sen. Warner said January 28. "DATA reflects years of bipartisan, bicameral work, and to propose substantial, unproductive changes this late in the game is unacceptable," said Warner, who along with Issa deplored the OMB's unsolicited attempt to intervene.

A previous version of the bill passed the House by an overwhelming majority in 2012 and again in 2013, but it never made it to the Senate floor. The latest version of the bipartisan bill, in which House and Senate leaders have reached a consensus on final language, is not as strong as the one first introduced in June 2011 by Warner and Issa, but it still contains a mandate for the core reforms envisioned by its sponsors, including provisions OMB tried to drop, according to the Data Transparency Coalition.

In addition, the DATA Act will enhance and make useful other efforts to achieve greater transparency through the use of technology, such as President Obama's Open Data Policy, as well as the modernization of the Government Performance and Results Act, they said.

Find out how a government program is putting cloud computing on the fast track to better security. Also in the Cloud Security issue of InformationWeek Government: Defense CIO Teri Takai on why FedRAMP helps everyone.

William Welsh is a contributing writer to InformationWeek Government. He has covered the government IT market since 2000 for publications such as Washington Technology and Defense Systems. View Full Bio

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