The DATA Act in the Age of Transparency

October 31, 2017 Lucy Morgan

Mark Twain once said, “The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” In 2017, the nation’s first open data law, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) moved from a pilot phase to full implementation. However, the jury is still out on how the public will react to this massive effort to bring unprecedented visibility into U.S. federal government spending data.

At the core of this effort to increase transparency, the DATA Act gives taxpayers, watchdog groups, and the media unparalleled ability to view detailed spending information in user-friendly formats. In other words, when Congress appropriates money, the entire lifecycle from appropriation to disbursement will be tracked and made available on a public website. In fact, you can already visit the new USAspending.gov beta site to view informative reports on the $3.85 trillion spent by the federal government in 2016 for contracts, grants and other forms of financial assistance.

The sites interactive visual tools display high-level spending data sourced from the Monthly Treasury Statement (MTS). The summary reports make it simple to see who has received funding and where it was spent. The site gives visitors the ability to quickly search down to the individual award or contract for more information.

This level of detail on federal spending has never before been accessible.

The yet unfulfilled promise of the DATA Act is that more transparency will ultimately lead to better decisions by a more informed public. Moreover, the creation of new, increasingly advanced ways to analyze disbursement information is expected to increase the use of data analytics for detecting waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer funds.

Accountability and transparency drive the DATA Act’s bold promise of better spending, improved outcomes, and more efficient government.

But the heroic fight for transparency of federal spending started with humble beginnings. Let’s take a look at the roots of this open data law, which is carrying the federal government kicking and screaming into the Age of Big Data.

The Birthplace of Federal Government Accountability and Transparency

The Freedom of Information Act

This movement started with a radical concept: that taxpayers have the right to know what’s going on within their government! Enacted on July 4th, 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) explicitly granted citizens the right to access records of the federal government and its agencies. Although there were exceptions built into the law that exempted certain records from disclosure, this legislation provided a right to access that was enforceable through the courts, if federal agencies were reluctant to share records.

The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990

The next giant step for transparency and accountability began with the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 (CFO Act), which was signed into law by the first President Bush on November 15, 1990. The purpose of this legislation was to bring modern financial management practices to the federal government to ensure reliable financial reporting and improve ways to fight wasteful and fraudulent spending of taxpayer dollars.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) gained new authority and responsibility for leading both general and financial management improvements. One of the lesser known details of this legislation was the expanded requirements for audited financial statements and other forms of accountability reporting. This boost in reporting included the requirement for cost reports to be made available to Congress and others.

Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act

Finally, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) was signed into law by the second President Bush on September 26, 2006. This unprecedented piece of legislation brought the public disclosure of spending information into the Information Age by establishing a single searchable website called USAspending.gov. The law ensured that taxpayers could access information about the government’s spending of taxpayer dollars in a publicly available database.

For grant recipients, your first introduction to reporting data for USAspending.gov may have been during the stimulus funding known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). It was during this time that the collection of various data and reports pointed to potential targets in the efforts to reduce waste and fraud of taxpayer funds. During this process, several types of issues surfaced in the collection of certain data elements for reporting on the new website.

For example, the information requested from grant recipients hadn’t been collected previously for reporting purposes. Data definitions were confusing, and legacy systems forced the manual collection of some of the new requirements. There had to be improvements if this radical concept of accountability and transparency was going to work.

Enter the concept of data standardization to a machine-readable format! An idea whose time had come, or so it seemed.

Want to learn more about the DATA Act? Make sure to attend the webinar, Digital Accountability, and Transparency Act: What it Means to You, on November 16th at 1:00 pm ET.

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