The DATA Act Introduces the Future of Standardized Federal Data

August 20, 2015 7:00 am PST | Effective Governing
Government budget

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, known as the DATA Act, was unanimously enacted in May 2014 as the first federal open data law in the United States. It requires the executive branch of the federal government to standardize and publish all spending data.

In practical terms, this means that government departments will have to work together to establish common data formats and fields. The results will be published on an expanded version of the website, available for all citizens to view.

History of the DATA Act

The DATA Act’s goal is to improve financial transparency and also to make it easier for departments to work together. Previous reporting systems had little or no capacity for real-time reporting and comprehensive views, creating a severe shortfall in analytics to support government decision making.

Richard Gregg, former Fiscal Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Treasury, describes his experiences in the time before the DATA Act: “We had separate buckets of data that were not tied together. There was a lag of some weeks and sometimes more than that for updates, and in many cases we had only purely summary information. In retrospect I think back on just how difficult and how blind we were and, in most cases still are today, in trying to manage our spending for large agencies like Treasury and others.”

The Benefits of Standardized Data

Aligning data standards across all federal reporting agencies will ensure that all can access accurate and current data, and experts such as Mike Wood, former Executive Director of the U.S. Recovery and Accountability Board, suggest that it will allow for easier quality control checks, and enable reconciliation practices. Specifically, Wood says, “standards are needed as the baseline to allow understanding of all government spending, and allow interoperability and valid comparisons between different agencies and sources.”

The benefits of the DATA Act won’t only be felt by federal agencies and contractors — these changes are also good news for U.S. citizens. Standardization will make it easier for the public to get an accurate view of the flow of government funds, including what is being spent where. It will also give citizens with federal grants or loans more insight into how their repayment fits in with other payments.

The Future of the DATA Act

Standardization and publication are not the only systems that need to be in place to improve federal data quality, but the hope is that they will open the door for more changes. Danny Werfel, former Controller for the Office of Management and Budget, thinks that the next steps will likely be quite technical, saying that “the other elements that we need to ensure data quality are updated process and technology solutions.” He continues, “standardizing data will enable us to shift to increasingly agile technology platforms to track, gather, and report financial information.”

While the DATA Act has mapped out the ideal future for open data and federal reporting, the implementation is still very much in the planning stage. Hudson Hollister, Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition, emphasizes that there are still plenty of concerns for open data: “There are several remaining challenges that could prevent the DATA Act from having its intended impact: agencies’ willingness to map to standards, OMB’s leadership on recipient reporting, and Congress’ need to fund and follow up.”

The experts who spoke with Socrata overwhelmingly support the DATA Act’s mission, and feel it’s essential for the health of the national economy. Mike Wood seemed to sum it up best: “It’s 2015, not 1815! The time is ripe today from a technology and open government perspective to impose and use standards.”

To learn more, watch our August 11 webinar on-demand: “The DATA Act and the Future of Federal Reporting.”

Watch the Webinar On-Demand


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