Going big on Data Act implementation

Senior leadership's message is clear that a half-hearted effort at tracking government spending data just won't cut it.

Shutterstock image (by Andrii_M): computer binary code.

An early supporter of open data was a downer, government watchdogs were positive and one fed kept telling his colleagues to go get advice from the private sector – for free.

The 2nd annual Data Act Summit revealed a world turned upside down.

Upbeat auditors …

“I am emphatically not paid to be optimistic,” said Chris Mihm, managing director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. But he said he can’t help but feel positive about the effort agencies are pouring into open data – time and money that will help make his job a lot easier.

The big question facing agencies following enactment of the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, Mihm noted, was “to go small and compliant or go big and value-added.” He said he has been impressed to see most going with the latter, better-in-the-long-run option.

Financial transparency is at the core of the Data Act, with the goal being to publish all federal spending in standardized, traceable, understandable forms online instead of letting spending go untracked in myriad documents. Agencies face tough questions, especially when it comes to mapping out how to tag and sort data (data mapping is a Herculean task you only want to do once, several speakers noted), but Mihm said agencies’ pain now will reap dividends later as watchdogs such as the GAO and private citizens use financial data to improve government.

“It’s impossible to determine ahead of time how users will actually use data,” he noted. “People are incredibly creative.”

Another federal watchdog, USPS Inspector General David Williams, said data analytics have enabled hundreds of millions in savings in the Postal Service, and he praised the value of openness.

“If somebody wants what you have, give it to them,” he said. “Give it away as fast as you can.” With technology ever-advancing and innovative ideas lurking in all manner of unlikely places, agencies have everything to gain by opening up their datasets.

Managing data will become even more critical in coming years, he added.

“I can’t believe I was dumb enough not to get a CDO yet, and we’re desperately searching for one now,” Williams said.

Peter del Toro, another GAO official, was hopeful that more open data and analytics will help validate his job in the eyes of agencies. When agencies see GAO auditors coming to assess their work “for free,” they typically shun them, while at the same time organizations are willing to shell out millions for “consultants,” del Toro noted. With analytics laying bare what strategies work and exactly how much money different approaches can save, he’s hopeful agencies will start to more fully appreciate GAO’s work.

… and a downbeat Dem

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), an early driver behind the Data Act, was far more measured in his remarks.

“We are going to be in challenging fiscal times for the foreseeable future,” he noted. “We need this data so policymakers can make more effective decisions.”

Whether the Data Act implementation proceeds smoothly is an open question, he said. “Sequestration was set up to be so stupid that no rational person would let it happen” – but happen it did, Warner said.

Commenting on the recent data exposure at the IRS and the Office of Personnel Management breach, Warner said, “The IT budget is often the first thing cut in any kind of downturn which is --,” he paused and searched for the right words -- “it’s the opposite of what I think would happen in most private sector companies.”

Of hacks and breaches, he added, “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

He relayed an anecdote: “There are two types of companies in America: Those who know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese – but they’ve been hacked by the Chinese!”

Warner called for national standards for data breach notifications and limited encryption – “I might trust the NSA more than 20 telecoms,” Warner said, putting himself at odds with fellow panelist Grover Norquist – and he noted that bigger, better government data sets could yield immense economic benefits.

Publishing government data online and beefing up security may have been boosted to high priorities under President Barack Obama, but the challenges won’t have been solved after eight years, Warner said.

“This is not going to be done by the end of this administration,” he said. “This is going to have to continue into the next administration.”

Talk is cheap?

How should agencies approach the continuing push for open, structured financial data?

The Treasury Department’s Amy Edwards pointed feds to the wealth of guidelines available at max.gov, but the Office of Management and Budget’s Deputy Controller Mark Reger offered a simple start: talk to industry.

“You don’t necessarily have to contract with them to have a discussion,” he told feds in the audience. “Don’t leave here today without some of those vendors’ cards.”

After picking up free tips from the private sector, agencies should dedicate plenty of resources to doing the data job right.

“Find someone you know and trust in industry,” Reger said. “You’ll find they spent more money doing [data mapping and management planning] when they had less money” because of the powerful payoff of data analytics.

Edwards noted that “the whole purpose of the Data Act is to use this data. Spend time and energy and effort now to map the data that could really serve as the backbone of how other data is mapped in the future.”

Reger urged agencies to think about their data mapping strategically, “in terms of the searches” people will be doing to comb through it, and many speakers noted the importance of a clean presentation.

“What we owe [the public] is not a data dump,” said the Postal Service’s Williams. His prescription: a “display gallery” for federal finances.

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