A brief history of the DATA Act

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Tuesday morning is a significant moment in the long history of making the spending of the United States government more transparent to the American public.

On May 9th, federal agencies will officially begin reporting data in compliance with the open standards created under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, the landmark legislation that cleared Congress in 2014. (It’s called the DATA Act, for short, which is how we refer to it today.) The data will start flowing to beta.usaspending.gov in the coming days and will eventually be transitioned to USAspending.gov, the long term online home of federal spending data.    

In doing so, our government will give citizens, watchdogs, Congress and federal workers unprecedented public access to structured information about spending and open up new horizons for oversight, accountability, activism and innovation.

May 9th is one of the most significant deadlines in the DATA Act implementation timeline. We didn’t get to this moment by accident. This is the culmination of years of work by public servants inside of our Congress and federal government, and public advocates outside of the system.

The Sunlight Foundation supported the DATA Act since it was first introduced in Congress in 2011 and advocated for its passage in the face of opposition from the Obama White House.

Why? High quality, standardized, public data on government spending can identify waste, prevent fraud, increase efficiency, and ultimately lead to a more effective, accountable government for American citizens.

Following is a brief history of how we came to today — and what’s next.

How Reporting Bad Data Drove Reform

Our story starts with the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA), which originally sponsored by a bipartisan group led by then-Senators Barack Obama and Tom Coburn. The longer arc story of federal spending transparency stretches back to our nation’s founding, of course, but we’re fast-forwarding to when Congress started trying to publish data on the Internet. FFATA required that “federal contract, grant, loan, and other financial assistance awards of more than $25,000 be displayed on a searchable, publicly accessible website, USAspending.gov, to give the American public access to information on how their tax dollars are being spent.”

FFATA represented a significant boost for federal spending transparency, but it soon became clear that it was only a small step in the right direction. That clarity was driven by the work of Sunlight staff, who examined the data published on USASpending.gov as part of the Clearspending project. We found significant issues with the completeness, consistency, and timeliness of grants data on the portal, which all represent significant limitations to the overall quality and usefulness of the data. Other government watchdogs pointed out the limitations of USASpending for those seeking community level data, trying to track spending by smaller agencies, attempting to discern how much the government spent on salaries, and more. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) eventually confirmed a range of issues with USASpending data.

Meanwhile, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — also known as the Stimulus — injected more than $800 billion into America’s struggling economy. What happened next, however, was a critical test case for open data that laid the ground work for the DATA Act. The federal government applied data standards to grants, tracked and disclosed spending publicly on Recovery.gov and gave special oversight to the Recovery Accountability at Transparency Board. That board ultimately identified hundreds of millions of dollars in savings.

In 2011, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the first iteration of the DATA Act. The bill changed a great deal before it was eventually passed in 2014, but one key piece always remained: the creation of government-wide financial data reporting standards.

In a highly politicized climate, the DATA Act struck a bipartisan chord in Congress. It passed through the U.S. House of Representatives nearly unanimously in 2012 and 2013. The bill was championed through multiple Congress’ in the Senate by a bipartisan group led by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mark Warner (D-VA). When the bill was ultimately passed by both chambers in 2014, there was not one dissenting vote.

In fact, the bill’s strongest opposition came from what might seem like an unlikely source: the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB began expressing doubts about the bill shortly after it was introduced in 2011 and continued efforts to weaken it up until the moment it was passed by both the House and Senate in 2014.

Implementation and the May 2017 Deadline

After Congress passed the bills, President Barack Obama quietly signed the DATA Act into law in the spring of 2014. In many ways, the hard work of the past three years just began that day. The law split responsibility for implementation between OMB and the Department of the Treasury. Many stakeholders — including Sunlight and members of the United States Senate — expressed concern that the executive branch would not implement the law with the same energy that it took to get it through Congress.

Happily, those fears have proven to be mostly unfounded as Treasury embraced its role as well as the principles of openness at the foundation of the DATA Act. In September 2014, the Treasury Department hosted a town hall to kick off the implementation process and gather stakeholder feedback. At that event, Sunlight urged the OMB and Treasury to embrace innovative tools and conduct an open policy making process that included real-time, online feedback mechanisms as well as more traditional avenues for collecting stakeholder input.

The implementation team at Treasury embraced these ideas, creating an online hub for information and feedback on the DATA act data standards, running an open beta as they built a new version of USASpending.gov, and consistently seeking feedback from the public. In a sign of their commitment that hit even closer to home for us, Kaitlin Devine — who was one of the driving forces behind Sunlight’s Clearspending project — eventually entered public service to work with 18F and ultimately joined the DATA Act implementation team.

DATA Act implementation has not been perfect, but the public nature of the process, along with a continued bipartisan commitment to oversight by Congress and regular feedback from the Government Accountability office, has helped ensure steady, consensus driven progress.

What’s next?

Key stakeholders from in and outside of government have tempered expectations ahead of the May 9th deadline. Agreeing upon and implementing new standards for federal spending data was a complex process that stretched over several years. Not every agency should be expected to report perfect data on day one, nor do we expect that to occur, particularly outside of the 24 agencies under the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990.

Members of Congress, officials at the Treasury Department and groups outside government have acknowledged the complications and, today, all appear prepared to work through issues that may emerge. Additionally, despite its poor record on transparency issues elsewhere in government, the Trump administration appears to have embraced the DATA Act.  

As agencies work out the kinks, it is vital that everyone outside government with a stake in the DATA Act’s success continue to support the law’s implementation by using the new data, helping identify and fix problems where they appear, and holding agencies publicly accountable if it’s clear that they’re dragging their feet.

A report released this week by the Data Foundation and Deloitte (which was co-written by this piece’s author) highlights a number of challenges to the DATA Act’s success as well as potential solutions. The report lays out a vision for the future of federal spending data that can serve as a guide for future oversight and reform.

The DATA Act has already led to a major success that’s worth specifically hailing today, given how little fanfare we expect to accompany it because of how much the work has proceeded in the open.

As we’ve highlighted, over the past three years the work on implementing Congress’ mandate has proceeded mostly in the public eye, on the Web at openbeta.usaspending.gov and spendingdata.us, and on Github at federalspendingtransparency, which connects to fedspendingtransparency.github.io.

What the DATA Act represents is an unprecedented bipartisan effort to ensure that federal spending data is standardized and easily available online to agencies, oversight bodies, journalists, and — most importantly — the American people.

In a historic moment when political polarization and bitter partisanship are at a fever pitch in our politics, it’s useful reminder that our government of, by and for the people can still come together to effectively work on behalf of the public they serve. We hope that similar bipartisanship and collaboration continues in passing the OPEN Government Data Act and implementing the FOIA Improvement Act in 2017.

The DATA Act is a vital piece of the larger picture of open government data. If successful, it will serve as an important stepping stone to the widespread use of standardized, open government data in areas as varied as performance tracking, records management, regulatory reporting, and more. Most importantly, it creates a more effective, accountable government for the American people. We look forward to seeing how its authors and implementers take the work forward, in the open, in the months ahead.

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  • Christina Masden

    This is great to see. I hope we are able to find a balance between providing accessible data to the American people and a healthy foresight with respect to national security. Looking forward to seeing the work & insights Americans come up with from being able to see statistics and information presented in an accessible format. Thanks for all your work!