How Data Standards Are Poised To Transform Government

December 9, 2014 11:11 am PST | Data as a Service
Photo: Data Transparency Coalition

Maybe data standards don’t sound too terribly important. But they are. In fact, data standards have the ability to change the way government does business: creating greater efficiencies, improving its effectiveness, and providing better accountability and citizen access.

“We are on the cusp of a great opportunity to transform government,” says to Hudson Hollister, Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition. “The US government could, for the first time, be able to manage itself as a single organization. That shift is really meaningful because the federal government is the largest, most complex organization to ever exist on the planet.”

The Problem

Over the decades, Congress has created numerous programs, grants, and contracts which require reporting into various federal agencies. But how those reports are created, including how information is collected, what data elements are included, and in what format reports are submitted, has historically been determined independently, by each agency.

“Congress doesn’t usually look at what’s been reported previously. The process has been put together piecemeal.” Hollister told Socrata in a phone interview this week. “As a result, we’ve ended up with reporting that is purpose-built and impossible to holistically view.”


That is set to change as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) requires the Treasury Department and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) establish government-wide data standards for all existing federal spending reports, including interagency reporting and grantee/contractor reports to agencies. These data standards, which must be drawn up by May 2015, will address both data elements (consistent ways of expressing concepts like agency, grantee/contractor, time, and location) and data format (such as XML or XBRL.)

Because these data standards will touch all existing government spending reports, if created and implemented properly, they will have a beneficial impact for federal, state and local governments, as well as citizens, the media, and watchdog groups.

Transforming Federal Government

Inside and across federal agencies, current spending information is housed in unrelated databases. This makes contextual comparisons and understanding of funding, recipients, and government programs close to impossible.

Implementing federal data standards will reduce red tape and allow information to flow more effectively across government. In addition, agencies will be able to easily develop tools to better understand, monitor, and predict their own spending.

“The data standards project should be embraced by all federal agencies as an opportunity to improve their own internal management. Once data is standardized, agencies will be better able to pull their data and that of others. That will allow the use of big data analytics to find fraud and make data-driven decisions,” Hollister affirms.

Helping State and Local Authorities

The vast majority of federal grant money is distributed to state and local governments who face heavy compliance burdens when reporting how the funding is spent.

If the right data standards are implemented at the federal level, state and local authorities would be able to “use a kind of Turbo Tax for federal reporting” says Hollister. This would also make life easier for grantees and contractors who could use similar software to automatically create reports, rather than using today’s manual methods.

Access for Citizens, Media & Watchdog Groups

Standardization of federal spending data will mean greater transparency and a clearer picture of what money goes where, for those outside of government too.

“With data standards, it will finally be possible to trace, in detail, the full lifecycle of federal spending — from appropriation by Congress to final disbursement,” Hollister says.

He also mentions the myriad of business opportunities which will arise with federal data standards, as new software for publishing and analyzing data would become increasingly necessary and useful.

Supporting the Data Standards Effort

Hollister encourages all those who see the inherent need of federal data standards to get involved in the effort.

“Although the standards are due out in May, the government is still determining what the data standards will be. So there is an opportunity for interested people to engage with Treasury and the OMB.” he claims. Hollister further recommends enthusiastic state and local governments volunteer for OMB’s federal data standards pilot program.  

“We are confident that, with support, Treasury and OMB will implement data standards which meaningfully transform the business of government.”



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