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OpenGov Voices: Properly implementing the DATA Act is key to the success of the Act

by guest author Shannon Sohl
An image of Shannon Sohl Project Co-Director, Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University
Shannon Sohl, Project Co-Director, Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University. Image credit: Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University

It was an exciting week for the SAFFIRe (Semantic Aware Framework for Financial Reporting) project team as we met with various legislative offices a week ago to share our vision of a proper implementation of the DATA Act. Members of the SAFFIRe team (Northern Illinois University, Rutgers and Webfilings) were also fortunate to witness Congressman Issa share his remarks right before the announcement of the passage of the DATA Act in the House. While we would like to think this was all part of a big plan to make our team feel welcome in DC, we know it’s just a matter of how the stars aligned that day. To make matters even more fun (did I mention we are a bit nerdy), we ended our visit by presenting our project at the 2014 Data Transparency Summit.

We were asked after our presentation at the Summit what we would do differently with structured data. Answering this question could take a whole academic report (and several pots of coffee) but the question is important enough to share an example. Otherwise we would be modernizing reporting only for the sake of having current technology. The example that comes to mind is one I tried to tackle in my dissertation but could not, due to limitations of the data. While, there were multiple hypotheses I was trying to solve for, one pertained to appropriate levels of discretionary reserves. In my sample set, levels of reserves varied greatly across the municipalities. In subsequent work I completed on townships, reserves were found to be much higher than levels reserved by municipalities (townships in Illinois were maintaining almost a years’ worth of reserves in many of the cases). Citizens continually question local governments about these reserves and no supporting evidence can be provided to explain why they must maintain their levels. Too many reserves could be indicative of overcharging citizens or not providing the services they were committed to provide.

Too few reserves could mean undercharging for services, providing more services than the citizens agreed to or even signs of fiscal distress. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) recommends reserving no less than two months of regular general fund operating revenues or expenditures in the unrestricted fund balance. However, we do not know and cannot know without sufficient data where different levels of reserves are associated with better fiscal health, by type of government, size of community, quantity of services provided, etc. Only reliable data that is easily accessible and consistently reported will allow us to test for reserve amounts that are appropriate based on certain characteristics about that local government. Then, citizens will be able to hold their government accountable for storing too few or too many reserves.

A burlap sack stuffed with money. The word Government is written on the sack.
via Flickr user 401(K) 2013

The DATA Act offers hope that our nation will soon experience greater transparency and accountability as well as strengthened fiscal management. We are moving away from financial snapshots that are only human readable, toward information that is standardized; it is human and computer readable which is much easier and more affordable to access, analyze, validate and understand. Yet, there is a great deal of coordination and work to be done to make this a reality. The most important aspect of the implementation will be developing a standard data dictionary (taxonomy) and core repository, with supporting mechanisms to sustain these new reporting tools. Stakeholders must come together and agree upon the vocabulary to use when “speaking” about public sector and non-profit information. In other words, the definition of terms such as public safety, or something as simple as cash, will need to be defined and used consistently throughout the various reports where this information may reside whether it be in a report to a bond rating agency, the MSRB, the Federal Audit Clearinghouse for a Single Audit, the U.S. Census Bureau, a tax increment report sent to the state or even in a presentation shared with a city council.

Tools such as the SAFFIRe framework provide information using agreed upon standards (standard taxonomy or data dictionary), guide users through the reporting process, validate inputs along the way and hold the information in a repository for the various consumers to access. These types of solutions not only account for the technical aspect of implementation but also the collaborative aspect, bringing decision makers (both producers and consumers)  together for input in the taxonomy and repository. We must also begin to educate others why the DATA Act will be beneficial to them. All of this will enable the proper implementation of the DATA Act.

Shannon Sohl, is a Project Co-Director – Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University. Shannon has extensive experience in managing quantitative and qualitative research initiatives in public policy, public administration and public finance. In addition to being a publisher, she recently presented her work at the 2014 Data Transparency Summit. Her current focus is on governmental systems & processes improvement, developing a prototype for a financial reporting framework which includes a national, standard taxonomy and core repository. She partners with the Illinois City/County Management Association to host the Illinois Financial Forecast Forum and holds a master's degree in Public Policy and Management from The Ohio State University and a PhD in political science at Northern Illinois University. She can be contacted at ssohl@niu.edu

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com