A proposal to unify government data policies, making it possible to track federal spending online, would save billions by subjecting government outlays to new levels of scrutiny, supporters say. And while the proposal entails a potentially costly data integration project, the result would create new and easy-to-access public data sources—and opportunities for new information services and data visualizations to analyze the outflow of federal dollars.
The act would establish an “accountability portal,” a website run by a new Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission. It calls for the commission to use “existing nonproprietary” data standards such as XBRL, eXtensible Business Reporting Language.
That is a big change from the way things work now, said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, a business group that includes among its founding members technology companies such as Microsoft, MarkLogic, SAP and Teratata. Hollister said that assembling a coherent picture of spending across the federal government is impossible because of several different data formats that don’t talk to each other and online presentations that track different things.
For example, the coalition found that the Treasury Department tracks dollars paid out, while the General Services Administration posts information about contractors and a catalog of federal assistance programs. The Executive Office of the President lists information about budget actions. The Commerce Department tracks federal grant programs. All of these pieces make up an incomplete picture, and they don’t fit together in a consistent, searchable way.
Part of the problem is the scope of the government and its $1.7 trillion budget. “No one had written down and figured out where all the places we are tracking,” Hollister said. With a new portal, “it would be possible to view all of the spending for a particular federal program, including grants, contracts and internal expenses” posted online for all to see.
Hollister, who helped write the DATA Act when he worked as a lawyer for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the inspiration for the accountability portal is the Recovery.gov website established to track spending related to the 2009 economic stimulus package. The website shows spending figures on infrastructure projects and displays a map showing spending by state, among other features. “Recovery.gov is the proof of concept,” he said.
Displaying so much data requires systems work, and the project would cost $575 million over five years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Hollister said supporters of the DATA Act believe it will pay for itself many times over with budget savings realized from increased scrutiny from the public—and more accurate reporting of financial data, such as reports filed by contractors rather than government compilations subject to errors. Even so, he added that recent revisions to the proposal sought to reduce its cost by adding restrictions to government travel expenses.
The Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, is an enthusiastic backer of the DATA Act. Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director, said in a statement it “will transform how we able to monitor government spending online.”
The DATA Act must pass the Senate before the end of the year, and prospects there are unclear. Hollister said he is aware that some Senators are concerned the House version duplicates some proposals under consideration in the Senate. Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who is the lead Senate sponsor of the DATA Act, said after the House vote that he will incorporate its elements into a Senate version.
Advocates for the DATA Act expect the White House to be supportive because in June 2011, President Obama signed an executive order to establish a Government Accountability and Transparency Board to build on the work of the Recovery.gov website. The board’s job is “to provide strategic direction for enhancing the transparency of federal spending and advance efforts to detect and remediate fraud, waste and abuse in federal programs.”