When the Office of Management and Budget released guidance on Monday for how fund recipients should report stimulus spending, absent was a requirement to make raw data public. The White House likely has reduced transparency with this omission, some open government activists say.
OMB's policy refined specifications it issued on April 3, partially by creating a data collection portal at FederalReporting.gov and doing away with certain data formatting requirements.
Organizations that receive stimulus funds will have three options for submitting spending reports to OMB: They can fill out a form on FederalReporting.gov; upload an Excel spreadsheet to the site; or submit a file formatted in Extensible Markup Language (XML), a standard computer language for exchanging information over the Internet.
The latest guidance does not include previous instructions from the April guidelines directing agencies to configure news feeds that would allow citizens to receive automatic updates.
For standardization purposes, "it does make sense that there is some restriction to the raw data . . . to make sure [that, for example,] 'assn' equals association, 'Boeing Inc.' is the same as Boeing Incorporation," said Craig Jennings, a senior policy analyst at government accountability group OMB Watch.
But the primary data may not be available in formats the public can use to produce Web applications and analyses, he said. "There are trade-offs and OMB is trying to address those trade-offs, and [I am] unsure of where to strike the balance," Jennings added.
OMB officials "seriously" examined having recipients report using raw data feeds, OMB spokesman Tom Gavin said. But to accommodate the technological limitations of all the various recipients, the administration chose the XML option instead. "There is a very fine balance between providing information and being overly burdensome on the recipient," Gavin said. "XML is more universal and less burdensome" than news feed formats.
Jennings also questioned the compatibility between the new site and Recovery.gov, the official public site for tracking stimulus funds. "Somewhere those two points have to talk," he said.
For example, say the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which maintains Recovery.gov, wants to display on a user-friendly map the location of stimulus projects using Geographic Information System data. If OMB doesn't require GIS reporting, then it will be nearly impossible to illustrate the map, he said.
OMB will issue specifics on FederalReporting.gov on how stimulus fund recipients will interact with the site, according to the guidance.
In October, agencies will be required to start transmitting reports from recipients to Recovery.gov. The material that is made public will be XML-formatted, Gavin said. The board is responsible for deciding what data to publish.
Some software companies have recommended OMB officials format spending data in Extensible Business Reporting Language for greater accuracy. XBRL is an XML-based computer language that standardizes financial information for easy exchange online.
"XML is definitely a step in the right direction. It's necessary, but insufficient," said Sunir Kapoor, president and chief executive officer CEO of UBmatrix, a Silicon Valley provider of software that enables companies to use XBRL. "Transparency should really be all about ensuring quality data in and quality data out."
Kapoor met with Vivek Kundra, the government's chief information officer, to discuss converting stimulus reports to XBRL.
Unlike some information access activists, Kapoor said he understands the need for a central portal to collect all the incoming reports. "The reality is that there has to be a middleman because of the volume of the material," he said. "But OMB should bring value to the process and not just be a dumping ground for information that may not be accurate or digestible by the public."