July 19, 2012

Senate hearing illuminates need for transparency legislation

Yesterday the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) held a hearing on the transparency of federal spending data. The committee invited Sen. Mark Warner, the Senate sponsor of the DATA Act, to testify. Three government experts followed Sen. Warner: U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, OMB Controller Danny Werfel, and Fiscal Assistant Secretary Richard Gregg.

The panelists disagreed on the need for Congress to pass legislation to achieve full transparency for federal spending data. Comptroller General Dodaro called legislation "essential." Dodaro told the committee out that only an act of Congress can devote dedicated resources to transparency. Only an act of Congress can require separate government agencies to adopt the same data standards. And only an act of Congress can ensure permanent, consistent disclosure. Dodaro pointed out that the government's current spending transparency portals, USASpending.gov and Recovery.gov, wouldn't exist without Congressional mandates.

Werfel and Gregg told the committee that legislation is unnecessary. They pointed to current spending transparency projects. OMB is trying to improve the accuracy of payment information that agencies submit to USASpending.gov, studying the feasibility of a universal electronic identifier for grants and contracts, and creating a comprehensive federal program inventory. Treasury is developing a new Payment Information Repository (PIR) - a system that will capture data for the 85 percent of federal payments that Treasury makes. For the first time, Treasury promised that this data will eventually be made available to the public. As Werfel put it, "We are not finished executing" existing laws - there is no reason for a new one.

The new projects that OMB and Treasury revealed yesterday are worthwhile efforts. Even if Congress does not pass spending transparency legislation, it should make sure OMB and Treasury deliver on their promises. Better data on USASpending.gov, a single identifier for federal awards, a comprehensive list of all federal programs, and especially a public database of federal payments would give the public new ways to hold their government accountable. These improvements would also help inspectors general find waste and fraud and help Congress make informed spending choices.

But the Comptroller General is correct. Only legislation will give us full transparency. Here's why.
  • Data standards should be government-wide. The whole point of data standards is that they standardize. Federal spending will become fully searchable only when Treasury, OMB, agencies, grantees, and contractors are all using the same standards. For instance, MarkLogic demonstrated at last week's DATA Demo Day how standardized reporting could have revealed the GSA's Las Vegas conference scandal as it happened - but only through a combination of Treasury data, agency data, and contractor data, and only if it's all tagged the same way. Without legislation, neither Treasury nor OMB can impose consistent data standards on everyone else.
  • Legislation puts it online. Comptroller General Dodaro pointed out yesterday that Recovery.gov provides far more detail on how contractors and grantees spend taxpayers' money than USASpending.gov does, in a more timely fashion, with better accuracy. But Recovery.gov only covers stimulus spending - and it's set to disappear when the Recovery Act expires on September 30, 2013. Only Congress, by passing a law, can specify the detail, timeliness, and accuracy that citizens deserve - enforceably.
  • The right legislation can clear away redundancy. Yesterday, several Senators and panelists suggested that the DATA Act will impose a new mandate and a new system atop the existing ones. That isn't accurate. The DATA Act replaces four old systems - the Consolidated Federal Funds Report, the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, USASpending.gov, and Recovery.gov - with one. These four systems result from four different laws, all passed at different times for overlapping reasons. The DATA Act amends the existing laws to make them work together. It creates one legal framework for spending transparency where there used to be several.
  • The right legislation can ease the burden on recipients. If agencies adopt the same data standards for spending information, software companies will create solutions that automatically download recipients' financial data and compile the reports that they must submit to federal agencies. Level One Technologies demonstrated just such a solution at our DATA Demo Day. Without standardization, agencies will continue to require reports in a wide range of formats, and these solutions won't make financial sense. Only the DATA Act requires agencies to adopt consistent reporting standards.
  • Transparency should be a long-term and enforceable goal. Transparency should be the permanent policy of the U.S. government - not subject to changes in administration. Without a law, spending data standardization and publication is nobody's job. The DATA Act will make it somebody's job, regardless of whether President Obama wins or loses his re-election bid in November. Werfel himself testified yesterday that OMB has had to fund transparency efforts out of the eGov Fund, which Congress intended to be used for all the government's electronic innovations. Spending transparency deserves dedicated funding. Only legislation can give it that.
  • Put them on deadline. Yesterday Richard Gregg didn't say when it will start publishing data from its Payment Information Repository. Danny Werfel didn't say when OMB will announce a new universal award identifer. As former Chairman Earl Devaney of the Recovery Board has said, "[N]othing makes government bureaucrats effect change faster than an Act of Congress."
Yesterday Sen. Tom Coburn, a member of the committee, said he would work with Sen. Warner to create a version of the DATA Act that the Senate can pass. Here's hoping they get started soon.





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