Digital Gov

Trump's pick for OMB sounds enthusiastic about the Data Act

Shutterstock image: data wall. 

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) stressed the importance of getting accurate and useful data in order to inform his and President Donald Trump's decision-making during his confirmation hearings to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

"In this age of big data, the government has all this data, but it isn't capable of using it because it can't even talk to itself about the numbers," Mulvaney said at his hearing before the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Mulvaney, best known as a debt and deficit hawk and a leader of the Tea Party faction in Congress that helped force the 2013 government shutdown, also lamented the opacity of federal spending data before the Senate Budget Committee: "It's almost as if the computer systems in the agencies are set up to not even allow the men and women working there to understand how the money is being spent."

The nominee said he was looking forward to the implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, an open government law passed in 2014 requiring agencies to publish financial information in a standardized format to the USASpending.gov website.

While most agencies covered by the Data Act expect to meet the law's first deadline in May, they have warned that their first submissions of financial data may lack details on grant and contract information.

Hudson Hollister, who heads the Data Coalition and helped draft the Data Act as an aide to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), told FCW that he found Mulvaney's support of the Act "very encouraging," and that an ambitious OMB director could press agencies to report more detailed data.

"Leadership from the top gives us the chance for OMB and Treasury to take another look at that," he said. "That's the first change that I think we might see happen."

As agencies adjust to the Data Act, they will, at first, submit duplicative financial reports -- via traditional reporting methods, and then with the machine readable data mandated by the law. Hollister said he hopes Mulvaney, if confirmed, will commit to moving away from the legacy reporting methods entirely.

"That would be fantastic for transparency and fantastic for management," he said.

Additionally, Mulvaney suggested in his testimony that OMB could help clarify the White House budget by publishing it using the same standards laid out in the Data Act.

For the first time, President Barack Obama published his fiscal year 2017 budget in an interactive, open data platform. What his administration did not do, Hudson said, "is take the electronic version and match it to the Data Act," adding that Mulvaney can spearhead "the next step."

Hollister said the technical infrastructure to match the formats "is already there," and doing so would allow users to "take the White House budget and compare it to the current year's spending automatically."

Last Congress, Mulvaney co-sponsored three bills —the Searchable Legislation Act, the Statutes at Large Modernization Act and the Establishing Digital Interactive Transparency Act -- that would similarly track legislative actions, but were not passed. Hollister said he would like to see the 115th Congress revisit them.

"Congress needs to take the lead" on enshrining open data practices into laws, he said, adding "there's going to be a need for Congress to safeguard open data now more than ever."

While he was "optimistic" about Mulvaney's support of the Data Act, he raised a bit of caution regarding agencies' recent social media lull.

"The new administration is certainly eager to take command at all the agencies, and in some cases, has imposed a pause on agencies' ability to publish information," he said. "Some of that is normal, but the danger is if the White House prevents agencies from publishing open data" moving forward.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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