Three years in, what does the DATA Act tell us about agency spending?

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Trying to figure out exactly how much money the federal government spends long has been an exercise in futility for those few brave souls who endeavor to try it. Though the U.S. Treasury has published financial data since the beginning of the republic, the government has an uneven history, to say the least, when it comes to reporting agency expenditures.

Agencies traditionally have employed a hodgepodge of data and spending models that fail to adhere to a common metric. This makes it difficult for lawmakers and policy experts to wrap their arms fully around federal agency spending. Since at least the 1970s, efforts have been afoot to standardize government data, culminating in 2014’s Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, also known as the DATA Act.

The bill’s purpose was to make expenditures both more transparent and more accessible. It requires Treasury to establish common reporting standards across all federal agencies, with the data posted online in a publicly accessible format.

The DATA Act has been in the news again recently because the first agency reporting deadline is May 9, the third anniversary of the law’s passage. Right on cue, the DATA Coalition hosted a panel discussion and “hackathon” last week to let teams of data wonks work with some of the early datasets the agencies have provided.

Keynote speaker Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, emphasized the potential for uniform spending data to shape policy by helping lawmakers better understand the scope and size of government. That, in turn, could allow them to enact more meaningful reforms. As he put it: “If you don’t know where you are, it’s impossible to know where you’re going.”

The coalition also hosted a panel featuring three individuals who have been key to creating the uniform financial data standards the agencies now must use: Chistina Ho, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for accounting policy and financial transparency; Dave Zvenyach, executive director of General Services Administration’s 18F project; and Kristen Honey, senior policy adviser for the Office of Management and Budget’s chief information officer.

The panelists generally were optimistic about the implementation process, though each noted the difficulty involved in pursuing new endeavors within a convoluted bureaucracy like the federal government. Honey was sanguine about the potential for agencies to follow the lead of private industries that use open datasets for productive ends, noting that American taxpayers have “already paid for this data, so they should have access to it.”

She pointed to the example of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ synthetic dataset published last fall that will help them study mental health issues among military veterans. Honey also predicted that state and local governments were likely to follow suit on open data initiatives, which she hoped would help expose and weed out inefficiencies in government spending and operations across all levels of government.

The panelists also cautioned that many agencies likely will encounter difficulties aggregating and successfully publishing their spending data by the May 9 deadline. The concern was that if reports from the Government Accountability Office and agency inspectors general catalog widespread deficiencies around the first reporting deadline, it could lead the public and lawmakers to doubt the DATA Act’s efficacy.

James Madison famously claimed that the power of the purse was “the most complete and effectual weapon” that could be wielded by government. Increasing the standardization and transparency of government spending data will only help strengthen that power.


Image by zimmytws

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