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Recent Innovations in Open Government
Posted On June 14, 2016
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DATA Act Summit

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) mandates that the federal government modernize the way in which it handles government spending information, replacing reports that are dense with data with open access to published and visualized data. Since it was enacted into law 2 years ago, several pilot programs have been initiated to test the systems and platforms that will standardize spending data, delivering transparency, better management, and automated compliance. The objective of the act is to ensure that federal government data is accessible, searchable, and consistent. If it works, it will transform how agencies view their own data; for the public, it will mean easier comparison of related data across agencies.

Hosted by the Data Coalition and AGA (Association of Government Accountants), the DATA Act Summit gave attendees a peek at the progress being made on several fronts, as well as a timeline for implementation across the government. More than 600 transparency advocates “seeking access to spending information,” grantees and contractors “eager to automate compliance,” and individuals representing federal agencies and technology companies “eager to republish, analyze, and automate” participated.

Open data is great, but it must adhere to standards so that federal spending is searchable as one dataset and is published for universal access. This standardization will help agencies manage their programs, citizens understand how tax revenue is spent, and those overseeing government appropriations determine how agencies are investing funds. Grantees and contractors are hoping for tools to improve their ability to analyze data, eliminate duplicative reporting requirements, and automate the preparation and submission of required documents.

The Data Coalition’s founder and executive director, Hudson Hollister, used his platform at the summit to explain how the government’s continued use of a proprietary code to identify grantees and contractors is contrary to the spirit of the DATA Act. Alternatives to the D&B D-U-N-S Number are available, such as the nonproprietary Legal Entity Identifier (LEI) for “unique identification of legal entities engaging in financial transactions.” Hollister also expressed concern that the government might maintain legacy reporting alongside the new open data standardized reporting system, placing an added burden on agencies (by duplicating the reporting required) and users (who could be confused about the system they should consult or rely on).

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Treasury Department have finalized 57 data element standards that agencies are now implementing to improve the consistent display of data. Direct agency data feeds to an open platform should result in fewer requests for agency data, relieving staff of some burdensome data-gathering activities. By the end of 2016, the first report on data quality from agency inspectors general should be available; by May 2017, agencies are required to submit financial and payment data. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) will have the remainder of 2017 to review the system and issue a report to Congress. This timeline means that the incoming administration will have the power to significantly reshape DATA Act implementation. The OMB released guidance to agencies for DATA Act implementation, and there are also requirements.

The Data Act Information Model Schema informs how data providers select and organize information to submit, what information is collected and processed and how it is related, and how consumers can access it to interpret information. Agencies will have a year to adapt their financial system to this new schema, which combines financial accounting and budgeting with information concerning grant and contract awards. The Treasury Department has worked on DATA Act broker back-end services powering the central data-submission platform, as well as a suite of open source tools to help federal agencies deliver standardized spending information to the public.

Section 5 of the DATA Act requires the federal government to “establish a pilot program … to facilitate the development of recommendations for” standardized reporting, eliminating unnecessary duplication in financial reporting, and reducing compliance costs for recipients of federal awards. The OMB and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) are executing the Section 5 Grants Pilot. The Common Data Element Repository (CDER) Library “is designed to be an authorized source for data elements and data definitions used by the federal government in agency interactions with the public.”

The DATA Act Summit’s inspector general panel demonstrated how geospatial tools are used to identify patterns or hot spots of fraud, for example, and how the inspectors general are involved in these initial stages of DATA Act implementation. Breakout sessions focused on three topics: accountability, financial management, and recipient and nonprofit reporting.

The session on recipient and nonprofit reporting highlighted the requirement by 39 states that nonprofits register there. This means 39 different sets of required data; different methods of filing (that are not always electronic); different deadlines, bureaucracies, fee schedules, and software systems; and different ways of storing and producing data. A single online portal where a nonprofit could enter all registration data just once—ideally integrated with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 990 filing—would benefit nonprofits, state governments, and the public. More information can be found on the Multistate Registration and Filing Portal’s website.

The Open Contracting Partnership’s Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) enables disclosure of data and documents at all stages of the contracting process, which reduces barriers and costs for businesses, making the process more efficient. Slides are available from Gavin Hayman’s presentation on open contracting.

National Day of Civic Hacking

June 4 was the National Day of Civic Hacking, an event for those interested in designing better digital government services. Code for America featured a map and search engine to help folks find a challenge of interest to them. A welcome video from Cecilia Muñoz, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, and Megan Smith, U.S. CTO, describes the purpose of the work and scope of the questions to tackle with the open government datasets available for people to build tools to solve problems in communities around the nation. Examples of tools built using this data, such as the Affordable Housing Finder and Transit Analyst, can be found at The Opportunity Project. Participants in this year’s events announced projects using #hackforchange on Twitter, such as mapping trees in New York, finding innovative solutions for the food insecurity experienced in California (during a Sacramento, Calif., event), and rent stabilization and open law initiatives in Washington, D.C.

Improving the way in which government works doesn’t have to be confined to a single day of hacking. Code for America Brigades are volunteer groups across the country that are building new tools to help with local civic issues.

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Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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