Cultural challenges slow federal open data efforts

The passage of the DATA Act last year brought with it a new set of mandates for government agencies to bring more of their spending data online, in a common format, to achieve a fuller picture of where public money is being spent.

The Treasury Department and OMB have taken the lead on implementing the law, but insiders highlighted some of the significant barriers to adoption at a recent House hearing.

The DATA Act — in longhand, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act — enjoys strong bipartisan support for attempting to shed light on federal spending. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), the chairman of the IT subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, praised the bill as an “important step in leveraging technological capabilities and know-how to make financial spending information accessible to the general public.”

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“While we may disagree on the size and scope of the federal government, we can all agree on the importance of understanding how government spends its taxpayers’ dollars,” Hurd said.

“If implemented properly,” he continued, the DATA Act will “untangle the web of federal agency receipts,” providing a far clearer picture of government expenditures than has ever been available in the past.

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But even as open government advocates have been cheering the spirit of the legislation, achieving the promise of open, accurate and complete spending data remains a tall order.

Reality check on actual progress of the DATA Act

Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of the United States, was on hand to offer a sobering assessment of progress on the DATA Act.

“Much more needs to be done to effectively implement the act,” Dodaro told lawmakers.

To begin with, agencies have been tasked with taking stock of their various spending records, but those efforts have been slowed by cultural barriers within the agencies, ineffective governance, and an at times lackluster response to the standards promulgated by Treasury and OMB.

“The government still does not have this. We need an inventory of federal programs,” Dodaro said.

He urged officials at the Treasury Department and OMB to step up their outreach to agencies and other stakeholders such as state and local authorities and industry members to improve the collection and organization of spending data. Under the current governance structures, agencies can be incapable of producing a single, holistic tally of how much they are spending on a given program or set of programs.

“There’s a lot of money being spent right now by the federal government to produce inaccurate and incomplete data,” Dodaro said.

David Mader, controller at OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management, explained that his team is still in the early stages of promoting data standards, but stressed that they will be working to effect the aims of the legislation incrementally, setting out achievable milestones to help CIOs and other agency personnel move forward with their open-data efforts.

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“We’re just getting started,” Mader said. “This iterative approach is going to get us real results faster.”

Dodaro credited the administration for a respectable opening effort to promote the DATA Act, but cautioned officials to take a more expansive, long-term view of the law, and not to let up on the pressure on agencies to streamline their governance frameworks.

“Treasury and OMB have a good initial governance structure, but they have yet to establish how it’s going to be permanently done over time,” Dodaro said. “I think it’s very important to do it now because the implementation of the DATA Act will span the next two administrations. And I’m concerned that there will be lost momentum and lack of direction to the agencies without that permanent governance structure being in place now that can transcend the transition to the new administration.”