Buying Coffee vs. Visualizing the Life Cycle of Federal Spending

Sean Wandzilak/

More DATA Act considerations.

One of many tricky obstacles to making federal spending more transparent is that most people aren’t too familiar with how government spends money in the first place.

“In order to present the information in a way that is understandable for the public, we must present the spending information in its context,” Christina Ho, acting deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury Department, said Friday.

“Otherwise, it will create confusion and it will look like we don’t know what we’re talking about -- and I will say that’s not always the case.”

Treasury announced in February its bold plan to show federal spending as a process -- from appropriations originating with Congress to contract awards.

“You and I spend money differently from how the federal government spends money,” Ho said.

“We spend it as a single event," she said. "If we need to go get coffee, we get coffee and we pay. But the federal government spends money with a whole life cycle. When we think about spending transparency, we must consider the complexity of spending in the federal government.”

But presenting the full federal spending life cycle is just the long-term vision, Ho reassured the Data Transparency Town Hall event at the Commerce Department.

“That’s definitely not what we’re trying to implement in three years,” she said, referring to the time officials have to lay the groundwork for all agencies to start reporting their spending using governmentwide data standards, according to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, dubbed the DATA Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in May.

(Image via Sean Wandzilak/