The DATA Act: Demystified

July 27, 2015 10:15 am PST | Public Finance

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) was signed into law in May 2014 by President Obama after its unanimous passage by the House and Senate. Across the nation, data enthusiasts celebrated the historical enactment. Fifteen months later, federal officials are asking citizens and partners to help ensure that the implementation of the law lives up to the bill’s original intentions.

Reveal Federal Spending

Fundamentally, the DATA Act exists to improve citizens’ ability to track and understand how the federal government spends tax dollars. The law increases transparency and accessibility of spending by requiring all federal agencies to make their financial expenditures available online in a unified, searchable, downloadable format.

While the earlier Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 established, the DATA Act changes the game because it calls for uniform data standards. These standards will detail a series of elements that all agencies must include when reporting spending. The law holds federal agencies accountable for providing complete and accurate financial data in the new data standards format.

Specifically, the law tasks the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to transform federal spending data from disconnected documents into open, standardized data, published online in one central location.

Benefits Abound

It’s important that citizens stay informed throughout the multi-year implementation to ensure that the law is thoughtfully executed and the full range of benefits are realized. Most obvious, the DATA Act increases our government’s accountability to citizens, advocates, non-profits, and media, who will gain access to federal spending in greater detail. Internally, government leaders will gain new tools to better manage; they can make data-driven decisions and analytics can be used to identify waste and fraud.

Federal grantees and contractors will have the ability to automate their compliance procedures  — saving time and money — once the data standards are adopted by all agencies. And, the law creates business opportunities for startups and established tech companies to develop new products and services.

Progress in 2015

Since the law’s enactment, the Treasury Department and OMB established a Github collaboration space to solicit public input on its proposed data standards and schema. Several initial data standards were published in May 2015 and additional elements have been added throughout the summer.

Beth Cobert, Deputy Director for Management at OMB, sent a memo to federal agency leadership that acknowledged that their “lack of interoperability between financial information systems and data sources has impeded financial transparency” in the past and offered preliminary guidance for the law’s implementation.

In a joint White House blog post, senior officials also announced that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began a pilot program to generate recommendations to standardize reporting elements, eliminate duplication and unnecessary reports, and reduce recipient compliance costs for HHS grantees.

More recently, OMB opened a “National Dialogue” for citizens to share ideas on federal procurement for grantees and contractors. The law calls for a pilot for both grantees and contractors, but at this time, a contractor pilot program has not been announced. The House Oversight Committee is scheduled to review the DATA Act implementation on Wednesday, July 29, and this topic will likely be discussed.

Collaborative Efforts

The Data Transparency Coalition hosted the DATA Act Summit in June 2015 in Washington with over 600 registrants, 30 federal agencies, 25 exhibiting companies, and a variety of bipartisan voices in attendance. Socrata’s Ken Melero hosted a panel about “Changing the Culture for Open Data” which featured panelists from the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Postal Service, and U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Stay tuned for next week’s post on the DATA Act to read about the takeaways from the DATA Act Summit and what’s on the horizon for the law’s implementation.

Dive deeper into the DATA Act with the Data Transparency Coalition and sign up for Socrata’s August 11th webinar, DATA Act and the Future of Federal Open Data.


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