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How a Transparent Process Made Federal Spending Transparency Possible

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By Christina Ho, Rob Cook and Bryce Pippert August 2, 2017

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In May, the Treasury Department released a new website (beta.usaspending.gov) to share detailed federal spending information so that federal agencies, oversight bodies and the public can gain better insights into how tax dollars are used. For the first time, granular federal financial and award information has been standardized, connected and published. The new data sets and the website were released on the third anniversary of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act becoming law, the mandated reporting deadline for federal agencies. It was a huge milestone marking a new level of government transparency. Our government's finances have never been more transparent.  

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The DATA Act is the first open data law in the United States. Treasury’s charge was to track nearly $4 trillion in annual spending on a quarterly basis and link data from disparate functions and systems—managed by over 100 individual federal agencies—into one common standard. This has never before been done. Unlocking this data required significant collaboration with stakeholders across the federal government. And, the rollout of the governmentwide data standards, the data collection software and the new website went more smoothly than anyone would have predicted for such a transformational government initiative. What made this program different?

We believe the people and the approach led to success.

The team working on the government DATA Act implementation at Treasury were tightly integrated but came from several organizations. Diverse skill sets were required and needed to be pulled from different places. Treasury provided oversight and leadership as well as communication and coordination support. GSA's 18F provided prototyping capabilities, procurement guidance and agile technical leaders. Integrated with the team were federal finance and accounting experts from Kearney & Co. and digital solutions developers and data scientists from Booz Allen Hamilton. It is a diverse team who was willing to make changes when needed to make sure the right people were deployed at each step with clear responsibilities.

Because this team shares a vision for a more modern, data-driven government and a commitment to transparency, they implemented the law in an agile, user-centered and open way. The implementation of the DATA Act is certainly one of the largest agile projects ever attempted by the federal government, and since each agency had to participate by law, it might be the first governmentwide agile project. The agile approach allowed the team to build, test and adjust in order to be responsive to the users every two weeks. From a management perspective, this approach allowed the team to always focus on user-centered outcomes, as opposed to a process which may not lead to the right outcomes.

The team also worked in the open. The interface designers took ideas wherever they could get them—at town halls, conferences, on the steps of the Capitol and the web. Design concepts were published on an open beta site for anyone to review and comment. The research drove the design and priorities for the product. Source code was shared throughout the implementation process so that federal agencies and the financial management and procurement software vendor community could both understand what was being built and reuse the same code.

This is not the end of the DATA Act implementation effort. Beta.usaspending.gov will continue to be enhanced and the agency data sets will continue to mature. However, the launch on May 9 was a major milestone in the journey to share federal spending data that represents 20 percent of our economy. On launch day, there were no surprises because there was transparency in the approach, in the communications, in how the team executed, and with the designs and solution that was built.

This team has accomplished what many in government have tried and failed to do—implement a major governmentwide reform involving more than 100 federal agencies—and deliver a product on time and on-budget with a foundation for more value to be realized for years to come.

Christina Ho is the deputy assistant secretary for Accounting Policy and Financial Transparency at the Department of Treasury. Rob Cook is the director of GSA's Technology Transformation Services, which includes the 18F group that worked with Treasury on the Data Act. Bryce Pippert is a vice president and leader in Digital Solutions at Booz Allen Hamilton, which was selected by Treasury to work on this project through a competitive process.

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