Is the Data Act proving out?

Key sponsors of the Data Act from both parties have good things to say about the financial information being released under the law.

Shutterstock image: beacon of data.
 

The federal government and U.S. citizens alike are seeing the initial benefits of the transparent federal spending data provided by the first reports under the Data Act, according to federal agency and congressional officials.

Spending reports under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act began being posted last month on the Treasury Department's USASpending.gov site, after three years of governmentwide preparations led by Treasury and the General Services Administration.

"This can fuel a renewal of faith in government," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) in a July 28 keynote at the 2017 Data Act Summit in Washington. "Transparency is key to public trust."

Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.) said he's already seeing new avenues open up in old federal spending practices because of the more transparent data's spread.

Issa said that in recent days he has talked with University of California officials about federal grant programs that were spending 55 percent of research grants on overhead expenses such as buildings, instead of on the scientific research they were intended to fuel.

That level of detail on federal grant money spending hasn't been available before the DATA Act's implementation, Issa said. Before the act, he said, universities wouldn't admit that level of overhead spending in research grants.

Issa said he hopes the data will also be used by a "cabinet level CIO" to find more economical IT spending across government through as-a-service models, instead of agency-level IT spending. He called that approach by the administration "aspirational."

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he hopes the data will serve to convey a larger message that the federal government can still do things competently and is still worthy of the public trust.

"There was no breaking news about the website crashing," Portman said of the Data Act implementation. It went as planned" under the act's rules.

Portman is a former director of the Office of Management and Budget and on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Rob Cook, commissioner of GSA's Technology Transformation Service, said the successful implementation of the act's reporting requirements, standardized data for those reports and the USASpending.gov website showed the federal government that agile development is here to stay.

He also echoed Portman's sentiment that the project's quick, efficient, under-budget implementation of a system that will provide transparent data to the public would bolster public perception that the federal government can do things competently and transparently.

"It worked because of the agile development process," Cook said at the summit.

GSA's 18F advanced tech group, he said, was key to the GSA's oversight of the development of the site and approach.

TTS and 18F, he said, will continue to perform similar work at GSA even as TTS moves under the agency's Federal Acquisition Service in a recent reorganization. Cook said the reorganization was centered more around how TTS was funded than on operations.

"It doesn't change us," he said of the reorganization, adding that the fundamental day-to-day operations won't be affected.

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