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DATA Act, Promising to Increase Federal Spending Accountability, Rises Again

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, May 17 2013

Rep. Eric Cantor & Rep. Darrell Issa at Data Demonstration Day (Flickr/Majority Leader)

Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif) plans to reintroduce the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, which aims to open up and standardize the federal government's spending data.

The House passed an earlier version of the bill in April of 2012, but it had not moved forward in the Senate. The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which Issa chairs, has now posted a discussion draft of a new version of the legislation. The committee will begin marking up the legislation this coming Wednesday, according to Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation.

A main sticking point in the earlier legislation was opposition from state governments and public research universities to a directive requiring them to submit separate, additional reports on any grant money received to a new entity overseeing the data standardization, according to Ali Ahmad, communications adviser for the Committee.

Under the new bill, grant recipients would not have to submit any reports beyond what they already submit, but individual agencies would have to adopt standards established by the Department of Treasury, Ahmad explained. The bill would still lay the groundwork for such reports to be streamlined and become more automated with the help of technology, and allow for "Turbotax for grants" type services, he said. Currently, such reports are often still compiled by paper, or electronic text based reports are submitted to agencies and often need to be retyped into their own systems, he said. With all federal spending information under the same standards, an automated system could prepopulate reporting fields for grant recipients, allowing agencies to more easily go through the submitted data, verify and ask for corrections, he said.

The DATA Act would also put the administration of USASpending.gov under the direction of the Department of the Treasury, Ahmad noted. Currently the platform is under the purview of the Office of Management and Budget.

"USASpending.gov currently has information on what grants and contracts have been awarded," he explained. "Under the DATA Act, it would not only have that information, it would become more accurate because of the standardized reporting, and will also contain agency internal spending information and checkbook level information from the Department of Treasury on federal disbursements ... You will be able to track what agencies are reporting against what the Treasury is saying they are paying out."

Hudson Hollister, who was an Oversight staffer involved in writing the DATA Act that passed the House in 2012, is head of the Data Transparency Coalition, a nonprofit that has collected industry partners to support this and other transparency legislation. The new version of the bill reflects a meeting of the minds between Issa and Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), who plans to introduce a Senate version of the bill, Hollister said.

"We now have what appears to be consensus," he said, "we haven't had that before."

Hollister said many companies backing the bill, who came to Congress Thursday in a show of support, already provide services to the government. They see the DATA Act offering the opportunity to enhance those services, such as in the area of data analytics. Others hope to build applications for the public or for government, while others believe automated, web-based systems built around new government-wide standards could ease the compliance burden of reporting requirements.

Elder Research, which has an individual membership in the coalition, highlighted in a one page presentation paper how the standardized data on federal spending could help it score all USPS contracts for risk of fraud, risk and abuse, which it claims could save over $300,000 immediately. Many of the companies, which also included Google and Microsoft in collaboration with Unissant, also cited the precedent of Recovery.gov — the website set up to track spending under the Recovery Act.

"The [DATA Act] puts somebody in charge of publishing and standardizing the data," Hollister said. He said the White House's initial Open Government Directive didn't have an impact on federal spending because it lacked specificity on that subject and did not link the functions of publishing and standardizing. Hollister noted that while White House CIO Steven VanRoekel and CTO Todd Park have been supportive of open data, OMB Controller Daniel Werfel testified against the legislation last July. President Obama named Werfel acting Commissioner of the IRS Thursday. Hollister also pointed out that the White House itself had never issued any statement in favor of or against the legislation.

Schuman, from the Sunlight Foundation, said the new language better reflected the Senate's perspective. Even without establishing an independent commission, which Schuman described as a small drawback, "it's still a really good piece of legislation that will solve a ton of problems."

The Sunlight Foundation has found that existing grants data "is almost entirely unreliable," he said, with data from one source that is different than data coming from another. The DATA Act would also give unique, federal-government-wide identifiers to each entity, he said, which would also be an improvement — two agencies now might have two different numbers to describe the same contractor, for instance, which can make accounting difficult.

The movement on the DATA Act "demonstrates a real bipartisan commitment," he said. "It helps automatically raise flags if there are problems and makes the sloppy bookkeeping that happens harder to get away with ... It's definitely time to see where the money is going."

* TechPresident Publisher Andrew Rasiej and Editorial Director Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.