Issa reboots DATA Act

A bill to impose open data standards on federal government spending is getting another look in Congress, starting this week.

Rep. Darrell Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa will reintroduce the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. (File photo)

A bill to impose open data standards on federal government spending is getting another look in Congress, starting this week.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform committee in the House is reintroducing the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, a bipartisan measure that passed in the House of Representatives last year with unanimous support and then died in the Senate.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, is expected to co-sponsor the measure. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced a similar bill in the Senate in September of last year.

Issa announced the news at Capitol Hill event featuring companies allied with the Data Transparency Coalition, which is pushing for the bill. It played like a miniature trade show, with a few dozen companies offering demos of government data solutions and even some star power from House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

If the thinking behind the DATA Act sounds like an echo of the executive order from President Obama requiring federal agencies to collect and disseminate data in open, machine readable formats, think again. The DATA Act is focused squarely on making the executive branch improve the quality of the data submitted to the federal spending database USASpending.gov, and to use analytics to weed out waste and fraud. It also directs the Treasury, in partnership the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, to mandate government-wide standards for data reporting. The mandate on standards includes common data and metadata elements for spending and award information due within a year of enactment.

The Obama administration opposed the measure last time around, and beyond a single hearing, the Senate did not take it up. At the time, Danny Werfel, controller of OMB, complained that the legislation created new a new rule-writing authority outside of OMB -- a provision that has been struck from the 2013 remix. Despite that, the measure may face some of the same headwinds from the administration as it did the last time around. (President Obama appointed Werfel to be acting IRS commissioner on May 16.)

Federal chief information officer Steven Van Roekel wouldn't comment directly on the new draft of the DATA Act at a meeting with reporters on May 15, but he did say that the principles of open data "start to capture" the idea of transparency in the government reporting. "If we can from the collection, use and dissemination of data make this data computable, make it machine-readable, you start to get at the core opportunity of streamlining some of the spending data inside government," he said. This is perhaps an indication that the administration is content with the executive order as a forcing mechanism for getting government agencies to adopt new open data standards. At the same time, Van Roekel did mention that the 2014 budget submitted by the White House moves the administration of USASpending.gov from the e-Gov fund at OMB and into the Treasury -- a move contained in the DATA Act.

Issa has praised the open data executive order, but still thinks new law is critical. "We realize it won't happen under any president's watch. The OMB has repeatedly said under previous presidents that they're doing it," he told FCW at the May 16 event. He sees the DATA Act as a way of guaranteeing information gets out not just to the public and to the private sector, but to those charged with oversight of government work.

"There are 74 Inspectors General, most of whom don't have access to data without going through a long process of requesting it and perhaps even spending money having it deciphered. That's the wrong way to manage. It isn't done in the private sector. It shouldn't be done in the public sector," he said.

New data standards, enforced by law, would dramatically decrease the prep time of private firms who use data from USASpending.gov in their products and services. Isaiah Goodall, director of business development at Elder Research, estimates that his developers spend 60 percent to 80 percent of their time cleaning up data.

Kaitlin Devine of the Sunlight Foundation, a good government group that is backing the legislation, is interested in putting some teeth in the requirements that agencies face for reporting data to USASpending.gov. Their Clear Spending project identifies late and incomplete reporting by agencies, because the data quality is uneven at best. "We shouldn't be doing this. OMB should be doing this," she said.

Hudson Hollister, formerly counsel to Issa's committee and now executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, counts himself a fan of the administration's efforts on open data, calling the new executive order, "world's ahead of what we had before." At the same time, he sees a "philosophical contradiction," in the administration's open data push and its apparent lack of interest in supporting legislation. "I think that contradiction is going to have to be resolved in order for all of us to move forward," Hollister said.

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