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Trump Aide Signals Spending Data Will Be Critical to Modernizing Government

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If federal agencies don’t make their spending data public in the next several days, they will miss a critical milestone outlined in the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

The DATA Act requires agencies to provide standardized financial data to the Treasury Department by May 9. Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget are overseeing the implementation, which will result in searchable data on USAspending.gov. 

According to various inspector general audits from last year, at least three agencies are not on track to meet that deadline, and another 12 have not made it clear whether they will. But financial transparency is still a priority for President Donald Trump’s administration, Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives, told an audience in Washington Thursday.

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The DATA Act could “improve the efficiency” of government services, Lira told the audience, many of whom were registered for a hackathon organized by the Data Coalition, a transparency advocacy group. Participants attempted to come up with digital tools that could help federal agencies analyze spending data.

The Trump administration is especially interested in any case studies that emerge from the massive aggregation of federal spending data, Lira said.

The DATA Act also has forced collaboration between disparate groups inside and outside government, he added. For instance, the General Services Administration’s tech consultancy 18F did user research to understand what people want when they’re looking at federal spending data, while the Treasury is currently collecting that data from agencies. Private-sector groups, including hackathon co-host Booz Allen Hamilton, have encouraged developers to create products solving data-themed government problems.

That level of collaboration could be a model for the “broader modernization of the federal government,” Lira said. The newly created Office of American Innovation, where Lira is on staff, pledges to apply business practices to government challenges including outdated technology. “We can work together across different levels of expertise,” he added.

The hackathon followed the publication of a Government Accountability Office report, which concluded that OMB and Treasury are not using agencies’ own inspector general reports to assess how well agencies are implementing the DATA Act. Instead, they’re relying on interviews with senior officials and agency self-reporting.

According to audits conducted in 2016, the Housing and Urban Development Department expects to miss the deadline because it didn’t establish which components were subject to the DATA Act until a year ago. The Interior Department needed a software upgrade and the U.S. International Trade Commission relied too heavily on its shared service provider to meet the reporting requirements of the DATA Act.

A series of congressional oversight hearings and GAO reports have surfaced concerns that agencies will miss the deadlines. Last year, Dave Mader, then-OMB Controller, told House lawmakers he “couldn’t tell you today” that the 24 agencies would be able to meet the deadline.

Even though the deadline is in 12 days, and some agencies are expected to miss it, they may have ramped up their compliance efforts in the past year, Treasury’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Accounting Policy and Financial Transparency Christina Ho told the audience Thursday. “A lot of things could have happened after the audit,” she said. As spending data trickles into the Treasury, it will “take a few days to see whether we’ll get all the data.”

The DATA Act is one of many transparency-themed efforts. The Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act, or the OPEN Government DATA Act, was introduced in the House and Senate in March. That bill requires agencies to publish their data online in a searchable, machine-readable format. Earlier this week, Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Cory Gardner, R-Col., introduced the Preserving Data in Government Act, which directs agencies to ensure that open data sets are kept public and aren’t removed without public notice.

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