Making Moves in Data Transparency

Published: December 14, 2016

Big DataDigital GovernmentInformation TechnologyIT Reform

A push for transparency in data in the federal government was seen this past week through a GAO report and Congressional hearing on the DATA Act and the Senate passage of the OPEN Government Data Act.

It is no secret that transparency in government information has been a priority throughout the current administration. Now, more than ever before, agencies are being called to be open with their data.

 This holds true for the implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) which requires agencies to report their spending in a searchable, reliable manner. The legislation calls for agencies to be ready to report spending on by May 2017.

However, the GAO believes this will be no easy feat for agencies with less than six months left. In a report published on December 8, 2016, it found that much progress has been made under the DATA Act, particularly by OMB and Treasury who are in charge of overseeing the legislation’s enactment. In addition to forming a committee to establish and identify standards as well as re-designing a pilot project for DATA Act implementation, OMB and Treasury have also issued guidance to agencies on specific spending transactions such as intragovernmental transfers. A new version of the Data Act broker, the system that will ingest, validate and certify spending data, was also released in October 2016. The below picture depicts GAO’s analysis of how the broker will prepare agency data for 

Despite all of this, there are still numerous challenges agencies are facing to implement the law.  Four overarching difficulties were identified by the GAO as hindering DATA Act implementation: systems integration issues, lack of resources, evolving and complex reporting requirements, and inadequate guidance. For example, an Interior IG report cited that as of August 2016, the agency posed a risk for not meeting the May 2017 time frame because of vendor delays in a software upgrade that put Interior six months behind the schedule outlined by the DATA Act.  

However, Dave Mader from OMB told Congress at a Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing that a vast majority of agencies will be ready to report their spending data by May 2017. Lawmakers at the hearing seemed skeptical of this but conceded that Congress has also fallen short of aiding with the implementation by only appropriating a tenth of the $300 million allotted for the DATA Act since 2014.

When witnesses were asked if the Pentagon, the largest employer and spender in the federal government, will be ready by May 2017, it was revealed that a possible extension had been drafted for additional time for Defense to report their spending. Nonetheless, Mader stated that Defense has been cooperating and will likely be reporting in time but foresees issues with the quality of data due to critical linkages between systems.  

Moreover, in the spirit of transparency, the Senate recently passed the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act which was introduced by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ben Sasse (R-NE). The goal of the OPEN Government Data Act is to require federal agencies to make data assets available in a machine-readable format. Specifically, agencies must:

  1. Make their enterprise data inventories available to the public on
  2. Designate a point of contact to assist the public and respond to complaints about adherence to open data requirements. For privacy, security, confidentiality, or regulatory reasons, agencies may maintain a nonpublic portion of their inventories

OMB will be made responsible for the completeness and availability of the data under the Office of Electronic Government, which will be renamed the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer. GSA will be tasked with maintaining the public interface as a point of entry for the data.

According to Senator Schatz in a statement after the passage “Public information belongs to the public, and it’s the government’s job to make sure that data is available and easily accessible in today’s ever-changing digital world.”