September 24, 2012

Digging into the Senate's new DATA Act: Same name, different content, same goals

In July, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee examined the need for better transparency in federal spending, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told the committee he would introduce a new version of the DATA Act. Last Friday, with Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) on board as a cosponsor, he kept his promise. The new bill has the same name as the measure that the House of Representatives passed unanimously in April. More important, its goals are the same: all federal spending should be published online, and the data should be standardized so that it becomes electronically searchable.

In other words, our video applies to the new Senate version every bit as much as it applies to the House version.

Federal spending data, once it is published and standardized, will transform government. Common identifiers and markup languages for spending data will reveal and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. Standardization will allow the government to better manage itself, provide transaction-level accountability to citizens and inspectors general, and generate a wave of innovation in the tech industry. Our Coalition's members gave the public and the media a first taste of that innovation at July's DATA Demo Day.

The new Senate DATA Act (online here) pursues these goals quite differently from the House version (online here). Let's break down the main differences between House and Senate.
  •  No recipient reporting. The House version establishes a requirement for all federal grantees, contractors, and loan recipients to report to a central database on their receipt and use of federal funds. This requirement is based on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which requires recipients of stimulus money to report to Recovery.gov. ARRA demonstrated that reports by grantees, contractors, and loan recipients who get federal funds are often more reliable - and more useful for oversight - than data compiled by the agencies disbursing them. But states and universities were concerned that a universal recipient reporting requirement would raise their compliance costs. Responding to these concerns, the new Senate version eliminates the recipient reporting requirement. The new bill does require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review existing agency-specific recipient reporting requirements and propose a way to streamline them. A single, universal reporting requirement and the elimination of agency-specific ones will be one of the options facing OMB, but not the only option.
  • Building on existing infrastructure. The House version combines four existing federal spending transparency websites - Recovery.gov, USASpending.gov, the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, and the Consolidated Federal Funds Report - into one new portal. The new portal would publish recipient reports from grantees, contractors, and loan recipients (see above), plus data submitted by agencies on those same grants, contracts, and loans - to allow recipients' data and agencies' data to be checked against one another. The House version also requires agencies and the Department of the Treasury to report all obligations, expenditures, and disbursements of federal funds to that same portal. The new Senate version is less ambitious. Rather than create a new transparency portal with new infrastructure, it adds new data to an existing one, USASpending.gov.
  • Internal expenditures on USASpending.gov. Although the new Senate version sticks with an existing federal transparency website, it dramatically expands the data offerings of that website. USASpending.gov currently reports each federal grant, contract, and loan. It does not reflect the government's internal expenditures or budget actions. The new Senate version requires USASpending.gov to report - for each agency, each agency component, each program, and each object class - the dollar amounts available, obligated, spent, and transferred. The requirement falls short of transaction-by-transaction detail. But it achieves complete coverage of the whole executive branch. Like the House version, the new bill requires Treasury to submit its financial and payments data alongside data that comes directly from agencies. It also improves on the House version by explicitly requiring USASpending.gov to identify spending by program activity and object class.
  • Data standards by Treasury. The House version requires the new Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Commission (FAST Commission) to designate common data elements and markup languages for federal spending information. The new Senate version retains the requirement for data standards, but it puts Treasury, not the FAST Commission, in charge. Treasury is directed to consult with OMB, the GSA, and the heads of federal agencies before it establishes standards. Like the House version, the new bill imposes a powerful, government-wide standardization mandate; under both DATA Acts, agencies must adopt the standards not only for information they report to the public portal but also for information reported to them by grantees, contractors, and loan recipients. One major difference, however, is that the House version directs the FAST Commission to designate the standards "by rule" - which means public notice and comment under the Administrative Procedure Act. The new Senate version does not include a comparable mechanism for public input on federal spending data standards.
  • FAST Commission scaled down to FAST Board. In the House version, the FAST Commission is pivotal. It collects data from recipients, agencies, and Treasury. It publishes the data for all to see and maintains the federal spending transparency portal. It designates common data elements and markup languages that recipients, agencies, and Treasury must follow. And it runs an accountability portal to assist inspectors general and other enforcement authorities in finding waste, fraud, and abuse. The new Senate version includes a Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board (FAST Board), but this body's composition, powers, and responsibilities are much less than those of the House's FAST Commission. In the House version, the FAST Commission is an independent federal agency. In the new bill, the FAST Board is an advisory body made up of inspectors general and agency officials. Its role is to provide strategic direction on federal spending transparency, monitor the publication and standardization of federal spending information, and solicit input from recipients to improve the reporting process. Its only specific responsibility is to submit regular reports to Congress. Moreover, the House version includes an advisory committee of recipients and transparency advocates to advise the FAST Commission. The new Senate version does not include a venue for public input to the FAST Board.
Does the new Senate version move as far or as fast as the House version? No. Does it deserve the full support of transparency advocates and the tech sector? Absolutely. Warner's reboot is true to the transformative goals of the House version, even improves on it in some areas, and provides a clear path forward to committee consideration, agreement with House negotiators, and final passage.

In coming weeks, our Coalition and other supporters will be engaging with the Senate sponsors to provide comments on this new bill. We will suggest some improvements, to be sure - but the first comment should be bravo. Sens. Warner and Portman have taken a giant step forward for data transparency.



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