Challenging the Trump Administration to Support the Drive Toward Greater Openness

Some say that a president with a business background should understand the value of data in decision-making.

by / January 4, 2017

The open data advocacy community is eager to see continued progress on its agenda when a new administration takes the stage in Washington, D.C., over the coming months.

President Obama put data front and center in 2013 when he unveiled his Open Data Policy, declaring information “a valuable national asset” that should be made readily available. In recent weeks, various open data proponents have called on Donald Trump to keep up the momentum.

The Center for Open Data Enterprise, for example, released a sweeping 27-point Action Plan for the Next Administration. Leaders at the Sunlight Foundation have drafted a series of questions for Trump surrounding open government and related issues. “How will President-elect Trump use data in decision-making?” they ask. “Will the Trump administration keep Data.gov online? Will it keep the Open Government Directive in force?”

Open data proponents challenge the new administration to support the present drive toward greater openness.

“Data that is collected by the government does not belong to the government. It is not the government’s data,” said Paige Kowalski, director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, which promotes effective data use within education.

As a new administration settles in, “we absolutely think there is a federal role around the need to collect high-quality data and make it available to the public," she said, "and we think there is a long way to go."

What Trump will do with all this advice remains to be seen. Some say that a president with a business background should understand the value of data in decision-making.

Others worry that Trump’s track record — his historic refusal to release his tax returns, for example, along with his call for “closing that Internet up” to counter ISIS — may bode ill for proponents of greater openness, visibility and access.

How Trump Could Lead

The Data Coalition in November added its voice to the choir, with the release of its 2017 policy agenda. A month later, and with just a month to go before Inauguration Day, that group’s leadership said the new administration will have a steep hill to climb.

“We believe that the benefit of transforming government information into open data has barely even started. Most of the value is still locked away. The information that would be most valuable still hasn’t been published,” said Executive Director Hudson Hollister.

How to unlock that value? The coalition says the new administration should start by pushing for full implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). By doing this, government would open up citizen access to vast repositories of information.

“The U.S. government is the largest, most complex organization in human history, and here we are on the threshold of having a single standardized open data set covering all of the U.S. government information on spending,” Hollister said.

For that to happen, data formats and field must be made consistent. This requires leadership from the top.

“We are asking Congress and the president to insist that every agency follow the data standards that have already been published. Following those standards is absolutely necessary,” Hollister said. “The law already requires this, but if the White House doesn’t insist on it, it means nothing. Without the White House, mandates like this just get forgotten.”

In addition to ensuring that existing requirements are met, the president also could push to extend the law. “We want to make sure that the structure covers everything," he said. "Right now it focuses on what is being spent and we want it expanded to see the money coming in, the tax money and fees and settlements."

In addition to making income data available, the coalition wants to see more types of federal spending included under the DATA Act umbrella.

“In an organization as big as the federal government, there are plenty of question marks,” Hollister said. “The Defense Department can request a special delay [in data release]. The Energy Department has all sorts of laboratories that are operated by a contractor but funded by the government. They treat that as special and we don’t think it is. The DATA Act structure has got to be applied consistently."

Grant reporting presents another data challenge for the new administration. At present, the government uses Dunn and Bradstreet’s proprietary data fields to record grant and contract spending, rather than an open format. “It means that citizens don’t have full and free access sot that information," Hollister added. "It may be standardized, but you cannot download it without paying for a license from Dunn and Bradstreet."

Extensive as this wish list may seem, it barely scratches the surface of the coalition’s agenda for the Trump administration. It is also calling for easier access to federal management data, to help citizens chart agency performance, along with passage of the Financial Transparency Act, which would add visibility to the information government collects from the private sector.

Agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve, and the FDIC all collect vast volumes of data, which could be standardized and made shareable.

“It would create better transparency for investors so they could make smarter decisions. It would generate better internal analytics,” Hollister said. “It would also give us automation. It costs billions of dollars for the financial sector to make these reports. If we had standardized data, the same exact information could be reported at a much lower cost.”

These calls for legislative and regulatory action resonate across the open data community.

The Center for Open Data Enterprise for instance calls on the Office of Management and Budget to “continue building on the DATA Act’s momentum by announcing a plan to eliminate duplicative legacy reporting systems,” and to provide guidance to help federal CFOs use DATA Act data to analyze the performance of their programs.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.