We already have all the information we need to understand how much the federal government spends.
But the pile of data is an unwieldy, nonuniform mess, which is why officials are putting enormous effort into developing a new set of standards for it.
The challenges for organizing this information range from organizational -- how to indicate when multiple agencies help fund a single contract, say -- to philosophical: What’s the place of performance for something like a research project on NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, which left the solar system last year?
And that’s just grants and services.
“In some cases, the information people actually want to know is not where the vendor is located on a contract but where the manufacturer, the factories -- where those jobs are,” Lisa Romney, a procurement specialist at the Defense Department, said Friday at an open data town hall..
Officials at the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget have until May 2015 to come up with a set of standards for all federal financial data, according to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, which was signed into law last spring.
On Friday, they sought comment from the public, posting a request for information in the Federal Register that will be open until Nov. 25.
They’re also going deep into the task themselves, taking what seem like simple identifiers to their logical extremes.
“Place of performance really touches upon the challenges associated not only with where the money is awarded but where the work is taking place,” Amy Haseltine, a grants specialist at the Department of Health and Human Services, told the meeting Friday.
For example, how would place of performance be designated for a grant given to the city of Boston that also includes work to be carried out throughout Massachusetts? That question becomes even harder to answer with locations that aren't affiliated with a specific country the U.S. government recognizes.
“You also may be an agency such as the Department of Interior or the Environmental Protection Agency, where the place of performance happens to be the Gulf of Mexico,” she said, noting there’s no ZIP code or easy identifier for the body of water.
“And if you encourage all that thinking to the next contemplative level, you could even consider what happens with NASA when their place of performance is the Milky Way, and that too, last I checked, does not have a ZIP code.”
Haseltine suggested thinking about the concept of the data element.
“Do you really want to know where the money went or do you want to know where the money was spent?” she asked.
Latitude and longitude is currently under consideration, she said. “But all of those kinds of questions have to be embedded into this particular data element," she added.
The effectiveness of the standards will determine the success of the DATA Act, which aims to present how the government spends money in an understandable way to the public, to Congress and to the agencies themselves, which should be able to analyze the information to help make better decisions.
Christina Ho, acting deputy assistant secretary at Treasury, stressed the need to think into the future, beyond the requirements of the law.
“If we only build for today, questions in the future will be harder to answer,” she said.