March 21, 2012

House Majority Leader touts the DATA Act - and asks for your help

Yesterday Majority Leader Eric Cantor launched his Citizen CoSponsor Project, an electronic platform that allows citizens to show their support for legislation and receive updates as bills move through the House of Representatives. The Majority Leader selected six bills to be featured. One of these six is the DATA Act.

The DATA Act will bring transparency and accountability to government spending by establishing consistent electronic identifiers and markup languages for the reports that federal grantees, contractors, and agencies submit to central databases. This information - covering every agency, every program, every grant, every contract, every internal disbursement - will be standardized and available online for anyone to scrutinize, search, and download. Using this new data set -
  • Federal watchdogs will use sophisticated searches to find indicators that a contractor or a grantee might be defrauding taxpayers.
  • Civic organizations will spotlight wasteful spending.
  • Reporters break stories about crooked politicians.
  • Voters will judge whether government programs are working well or not.
  • Technology companies will build new apps and invent new, creative ways to display and think about government spending.
  • Federal agencies will track their programs' spending and performance over time to inform their management decisions.
  • Congress will have more data to inform decisions about whether to increase or decrease program appropriations.
The DATA Act is already cosponsored by many Republican and Democratic members of Congress. Now you too can cosponsor this landmark legislation - click below:

The DATA Act been endorsed by the Sunlight Foundation, XBRL US, the Project on Government Oversight, American Library Association, the American Institute of CPAs, Americans for Tax Reform, the Institute of Management Accountants, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and many other companies, civic organizations, and standards groups. Watch this space in coming days for more on how the DATA Act will transform federal spending information.

March 15, 2012

Where's the beef? "Federal Engagement in Standards" memo stays vague

From his first full day in office, President Obama and his administration have consistently signaled that the federal government's data must be standardized. The President and his appointees are quite correct. Without common identifiers and markup languages for spending data, regulatory filings, legislative actions, and other types of government information, full transparency will remain elusive.

But open-government advocates are right to ask, "Where's the beef?" The administration has yet to direct agencies to standardize a specific category of data, or to call on Congress to deliver standards legislation to the President's desk.

The administration made its latest statement of support for standards on January 17, when the Executive Office of the President released a memo on the subject to the heads of every federal agency. This memo, titled "Principles for Federal Engagement in Standards Activities to Address National Priorities," has an impressive pedigree. It's signed by Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs; Aneesh Chopra, then Chief Technology Officer of the United States; and Deputy United States Trade Representative Miriam Santo.

Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo call on agencies to work with the private sector to develop and implement standards "where a national priority has been identified in statute, regulation, or Administration policy." But they stay impressively vague. Nowhere does their memo identify any specific "national priority" that requires the development and implementation of data standards.

Surely the transparent tracking of federal grants and contracts qualifies as a national priority. Last December, President Obama's appointed Government Accountability and Transparency Board recommended that the government standardize the identification codes that are assigned to grants and contracts. Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo did not mention this worthy - and very achievable - goal.

Surely the reform of our financial system qualifies as a national priority. House Republicans and Democrats came together in 2010 to support amendments to the Dodd-Frank law that would have imposed common markup languages on all the data that the financial regulators collect from the industry, so that all of the data would become machine-readable. But Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo did not mention the promise and possibility of financial data standardization.

Surely the efficient administration of our social welfare programs qualifies as a national priority - and this is an area where President Obama deserves credit. Last month, he signed legislation that will impose common identification codes and markup languages on reports that states and employers must file with the federal government describing how social welfare and unemployment funds are spent. There is more to be done; the House Ways and Means Committee has proposed to standardize all federal reporting in its jurisdiction in the same way. But Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo did not greet the Ways and Means Committee's call for improving program management through standardized reporting.

The President and his administration have a valuable opportunity this year to add meat to their frequent call for data standardization by endorsing specific projects and legislation. Sunstein, Chopra, and Santo didn't.
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