Passing the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) Act was a victory for open government and congressional data transparency. But passing the law alone is not enough — as we move into the implementation stage, it is crucial to get the standards for data formatting right.
Despite pre-existing transparency legislation, insufficient standards and poor implementation have led to major inaccuracies in data published by the federal government. According to an August 2014 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, federal agencies did not properly report approximately $619 billion in fiscal year 2012, making the data published on USASpending.gov unreliable. That mistake alone significantly undercut the objective of data-transparency efforts.
GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro recently told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that, in spite of good intentions, “there is a long way to go before [federal agencies are] going to have the standards in place.”
The Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department are supposed to have formatting standards for the DATA Act in place by May 2015. According to Dodaro, the future success of real government-spending transparency hinges on these standards, telling the oversight panel: “Without the legislative underpinning and consistent oversight, this won’t happen.”
Government transparency is a core component of effective representative democracy. We need access to government spending data on publicly accessible platforms if we are going to hold the government accountable for spending activities.
Beyond questions of openness and accountability, research shows that data transparency is directly tied to the quality of government performance and execution. In a study of psychology papers in two major journals, researchers in the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Amsterdam found “the authors’ reluctance to share data was associated with more errors in reporting of statistical results and with relatively weaker evidence.” In other words, data transparency was directly correlated with data accuracy. Open data standards improve the quality of research.
Data transparency is just not a bonus feature to appease a small faction of geeks and activists. It is a quality-control mechanism that should be baked into every step of governance. The DATA Act holds great potential, but only if the responsible parties put serious thought and effort into making sure its standards and execution fulfill the law’s promise.