Not Everyone Loves the DATA Act

“The passage of this bill is important precisely because the bureaucrats in Washington don’t want it and have fought it every step of the way,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said.

“The passage of this bill is important precisely because the bureaucrats in Washington don’t want it and have fought it every step of the way,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said. Susan Walsh/AP file photo

Some agency employees fear an added workload for the transparency cause.

This story was updated late Friday after President Obama signed the DATA Act into law.

President Obama's signature on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act late Friday means agencies will begin actualizing what has been called everything from “transformative” to a 21st-century tool to “revolutionize federal spending.”

The DATA Act, which requires a standardized format for agency spending reports, has been hailed like a next killer app by lawmakers, transparency advocates and private-sector technology groups.

“Think of the DATA Act as sunshine goes digital,” wrote its chief author, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in an op-ed.

“In the digital age, we should be able to search online to see how every grant, contract and disbursement is spent in a more connected and transparent way through the federal government,” cosponsor Sen. Mark Warner said. “Improved transparency means greater accountability to the taxpayers, and I appreciate the combined efforts of our bipartisan partners on both sides of Capitol Hill in successfully winning passage of the DATA Act,” Warner said.

“The federal government's antiquated document-based reporting apparatus will be transformed into an efficient flow of standardized, open data,” enthused the DATA Transparency Coalition. “Open spending data will become a public resource for citizens, watchdogs, and the tech industry.”

But deep inside the agencies that form what the coalition calls “the largest, most complex organization in human history,” a sub rosa current of resistance over the past few years has occasionally crept into the open. The Office of Management and Budget, which was slow to embrace the legislation, ended by backing a compromise that preserved some of its authority to work with the Treasury Department to set the data format standards. The agency’s post-passage comments still suggest a concern over new demands on agencies.

“The administration supports the objectives of the DATA Act and looks forward to working with Congress on implementing the new data standards and reporting requirements within the realities of the current constrained budget environment and agency financial systems,” OMB spokesman Frank Benenati told Government Executive.

A more vivid suggestion of DATA Act resistance came in a statement from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “The passage of this bill is important precisely because the bureaucrats in Washington don’t want it and have fought it every step of the way,” he said after the April 28 House vote. “In many cases, the federal government doesn’t even know what they’re doing with their resources and now they will have to know in order to comply with this law.”

One reason for the reluctance, according to Mary Peterman, president of the Association of Government Accountants, is that “after many federal and state and local agencies experienced the [2009] Recovery Act, there was a certain wariness about how they are to execute the DATA Act,” she told Government Executive. “Is it from operations and maintenance, and is it an unfunded mandate?” she asked. “But generally, they all believe in its essence, except that whether legislating transparency is a value proposition for the citizenry is somewhat in question.”

DATA Act implementation will unfold on a timeline, with the Treasury secretary establishing a data analytics center modeled on the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board’s Recovery Operations Center. Working with OMB, the center within a year will set standards for reporting agency spending, which will be used within three years on USASpending.gov. OMB within a year will also set up a two-year pilot program to be set up for use by grantees and contractors.

“Agencies may set up processes to take existing PDFs and spreadsheets, and manually translate that information into required data formats, or simply request that information be shared via a Web form of email,” said the DATA Coalition. Congress does not force Treasury and OMB to establish any particular identifier or format, but it does make its preferences clear: “a widely-accepted, nonproprietary, searchable, platform-independent computer readable format" that includes “unique identifiers for federal awards and entities receiving federal awards that can be consistently applied governmentwide."

Most interest groups consulted see the act as a positive. The DATA Act is “arguably the most transformative piece of federal open data legislation since the 1996 Freedom of Information Act, establishing governmentwide financial data standards and aligning them with the president’s Open Data Policy,” said the IT Alliance for Public Sector, a policy advocacy group seeking innovation.

Patricia Niehaus, national president of the Federal Managers Association, calls it “is a good step to improve stewardship of the government’s financial resources, which should result in greater efficiency, cost savings and overall effectiveness of the federal government. Standardization should be done sensibly, in a manner that does not burden frontline managers at departments and agencies. FMA will monitor implementation of the DATA Act and expect it will help pinpoint duplicative programs and other areas where the government can save money while continuing to provide the essential services at the level that all Americans expect.”

Michael Fischetti, executive director of the National Contract Management Association, said it is a “great potential benefit and improved transparency for the taxpayer and decision-making for relevant authorities. From a contracting perspective, any modifications to data elements, as required input to the Federal Procurement Data System for government contract awards, will not necessarily increase contracting officer workload or stress on the existing system,” he said. “If implemented well, and considering existing acquisition processes, a more informative and streamlined system could reduce the occasional, work-load intensive manual contracting ‘data calls’ that stress today's professionals.”

Paul Christman, vice president of public Sector at Dell Software, acknowledged that compliance may “increase the workload of federal employees in the short term. In the long run, however, the insights from data collected via the DATA Act will decrease the workload for federal workers and enable departments to more proactively manage projects before problems escalate. This will by no means be easy,” he said. “The challenge for agencies will be to streamline their data collection, analysis and management without sacrificing security. While ultimately the DATA Act will promote budget transparency, the premature release of partial information could needlessly damage agency reputations.”

Security concerns were also raised by Mike Hettinger, senior vice president of public sector and federal government affairs at TechAmerica, who said his association had hesitations about previous versions of the bill. “TechAmerica had expressed concerns about the potential national security risks from the release of procurement figures, but our views were heard and addressed through giving Defense Department the option to extend implementation of the bill's requirements to enable better protection of data from damaging disclosure. The updated version of the bill also limits the reporting of sensitive information that is protected from Freedom of Information Act requests.”

Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, now running a coalition of corporations, nonprofits and academics called the Government Transformation Initiative, said, “Congress should capitalize on the passage of the DATA Act and the enhanced tracking of federal spending data by creating an entity to provide analysis and review of that information and other data that would ensure the federal government achieves dramatic improvements in efficiency and effectiveness of programs and policies.” Pending legislation calls such a broader management entity a Government Transformation Board.

Hudson Hollister, the Data Transparency Coalition executive director who has spent years pushing the DATA Act, said that although he personally had not heard from agencies, “There is time to prepare and adjust, and agencies should start now. It doesn’t require systems to be upgraded or replaced,” he told Government Executive, suggesting Microsoft’s adaptability as a model. “Agencies can gain management effectiveness by incorporating the DATA Act internally.”

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