Despite implementation hurdles, the nation’s first open data law is on schedule to publish federal financial data online starting with a pilot program by May 2015.
Since the president signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) on May 9, 2014, federal agencies have been testing how to comply. The law, based on the open data movement’s drive to digitize and publish government data freely, requires agencies to place all their expenditures information on USASpending.gov, the national Web portal for government spending.
Though the deadlines for agencies to publish data is relatively far off — May 9, 2017, for agency websites, and May, 9 2018, for collective publishing on USASpending.gov — advocates of the law are still lobbying for private and public support to ensure congressional and White House leadership receive buy-in to complete the job. Hudson Hollister, the executive director at the Data Transparency Coalition (DTC), is one of these proponents. From the DATA Act’s first starts to its congressional and presidential approvals, Hollister and his coalition have devoutly pushed the law forward.
Yet now, post-passage, Hollister says motivation is needed to bolster and sustain the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Treasury as they guide agencies toward adoption.
"It's definitely not happening at the speed of the tech industry,” Hollister said. “It has to happen at the speed of government, and that’s why I'm really keen to maintain — through our coalition — the interest of the tech industry even though [the process] may take a long time."
While a pilot launch is mandated for next May, the law's verbiage leaves a fair amount of flexibility for agencies. The DATA Act only requires a pilot program be started for government contractors and grantees, or, in other words, those vendors and organizations that typically provide services for governments. Hudson differentiated that there is no mandate for an agency-specific pilot program — where much of the valuable data is generated.
This leaves only two major deadlines for agencies: May 9, 2016, when an inspector general of each agency reports on the quality and quantity of first efforts; and a year later, on May 9, 2017, when agencies are required to provide all payment and expenditure data using the standards.
“Agencies have about two years to adopt reporting data standards and formats,” Hollister said. “However, on the grantee and contractor side, the OMB only has to test what happens when the standards get applied to contractor reporting.”
A possible pitfall of a distant deadline without a required mechanism for accountability and periodic check-ins is the increased probability to miss the law’s set timeline. It’s worrisome considering agencies' current financial reporting track record isn’t exactly stellar. According to a data transparency report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there have been sizable reportage gaps before. The report stated $620 billion in grants, loans and awards was left unaccounted for during fiscal 2012, and the recommendation was for more — not less — oversight.
However, in spite of the leeway on implementation the Treasury and OMB appear cognizant that a foundation is needed for fellow federal entities to make the leap into open data. The OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management is fine tuning a draft of open data standards while the Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service is leading an initiative to beta test what a conversion might look like. In total, there are five different types of reports that all need to be digitally standardized, and the Treasury is using its own budget and financial records for testing.
"If it can be done with the Treasury's data," said Hollister, "then that might help show the way forward for doing it with every agency's data once the standards are defined."
Hollister also underscored that transparency — such as the reporting gaps — are part of the reason to keep momentum going. The ambition for the near future is to encourage members of Congress to organize positive and constructive hearings on the DATA Act’s rollout.
"[The OMB and Treasury] both understand that the DATA Act is not just about public accountability — although that is why probably most of Congress voted for it — but it’s also about improving internal government management,” Hollister said. “They both understand what data standards could do in the realm of federal spending."
Neither the OMB nor U.S. Treasury were available for comment by press time.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.