Open Data

3 ways to get more out of the Data Act

Steve Goodrich

Steve Goodrich, president of the Center for Organizational Excellence, calls the Data Act "promising," while worrying about how it will be carried out.

The recently enacted Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or Data Act, requires agencies to disclose direct expenditures and link them to contracts, loans and grants. It requires the establishment of standards, improvements in the quality of data and streamlined reporting through the use of USASpending.gov. It may also, at the discretion of the secretary of Treasury, establish a data analysis center to facilitate better analysis and increased efficiency. If implemented correctly, the act could provide an underlying framework to support not only transparency and accountability in government, but also improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs.

Under the authority and collaboration of the Treasury, Office of Management and Budget and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the act does show promise. There are specific deadlines for compliance, reporting, hosting a pilot program and implementation. The law addresses the timeliness and accuracy of reported data, as well as eliminating duplication and reducing the cost of compliance. It also assigns some deadlines for these changes: In approximately three and a half years, OMB must issue agency guidance on the implementation of the data standards and simplification of the reporting process. Like most legislation, however, the proof will be in its execution.

Transition is critical

Success of the act will hinge on the transition process.

My first recommendation to assure the Data Act succeeds is for Treasury to incorporate a transition or implementation model that helps agencies align and comply with the act. The model would do more than set data standards. It would also ensure the standards address consistency of compliance, effective management, and technology requirements surrounding data transfer protocols, cleansing and similar functions. Accuracy of the data, agencies’ ability to comply, appropriate use of the tools and effective analysis will all be critical to the act’s success.

Data accuracy, however, has proven to be a heavy lift in government. Payment and procurement data have historically been elusive and often inaccurate when reported. Having the appropriate technology tools to collect data is necessary for standardization and compliance cost-management. However, if the datasets are not accurate and complete, the process is useless.

Treasury plans to address these factors in a pilot program, but the post-pilot implementation will still be incredibly telling as to whether the Data Act will be effective in practice, and not just in theory.

Ten years ago, OPM standardized HR data. It required a significant effort and the participation of a number of stakeholders across numerous agencies, but it was a successful endeavor resulting in a government-wide standard. While much can be garnered from existing financial policy, let’s use this example of successful standardization to inform the implementation of the Data Act.

Performance improvement is the end goal

Following a successful implementation, my second recommendation is expansion of the Data Act to ultimately include performance-based reporting on programs.

The law clearly states that the data should enable Congress and taxpayers to track federal spending more effectively. The assumption is that these parties can use the data to be better informed, enabling them to make recommendations for acceleration, change, elimination or improvement of government programs.

It would be a big day in Washington, D.C., if the Data Act expanded to include program performance-related data, with metrics showing what the American people are getting in return for their tax dollars. While financial data can be helpful in fraud, waste and abuse investigations, as well as painting an accurate picture of costs, it tells only part of the story. The reporting of performance and outcomes is critical to the efficacy and efficiency of the program and ultimately to the government’s ability to serve the American people. We cannot act soon enough.

More must be done

While the ink is barely dry on the Data Act, my third recommendation is that Congress quickly take up what I believe is the next logical step –passage of the Government Transformation Act (S.1297, H.R.2675), which would create a Commission on Government Transformation tasked with making recommendations on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of Federal programs. The commission could host the anticipated Data Analysis Center, incorporate the critical performance data needed to measure outcomes and highlight the need for a systemically efficient and effective government, while saving billions of dollars in the process.

Without complete and accurate data, without standards for implementation, and without performance data, the desired outcome of the Data Act may not be fully realized, or could bear limited fruit. The next steps are logical and achievable. I am excited about what Congress has done with the Data Act, and now it is time to ensure the Data Act is as effective as it can be.

About the Author

Steve Goodrich is president of the Center for Organizational Excellence and a Government Transformation Initiative board member.

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