If members of the public want to track how the government is spending taxpayer money as easily as they check the weather on their smartphones, they must press those in power to make it possible.
That was the call from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at a conference Wednesday held by open data advocacy group Data Transparency Coalition. Issa, who has helped shape recent open data legislation, implored people to embrace what is possible.
“Imagine if all the spending in government to all the vendors was made open and available for nonclassified work,” Issa said. “Imagine how quickly we could find out that the government, through no fault of its own, paid 10 different prices for the same product, and in fact, may buy once from the company who manufactures it, once from the distributor and several times from retailers, and not even be aware when they went out with contracts that they did that. Imagine how much savings we could have.”
Issa helped craft the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act — which requires federal agencies to make their financial, budget, payment, grant and contract data interoperable when published to USASpending.gov, the federal government’s hub of publicly available financial data, by May 9, 2017.
This May, Issa also introduced the Financial Transparency Act, which would require the eight major U.S. financial regulatory agencies to make data they collect on existing securities, commodities and banking laws electronically searchable and downloadable in bulk.
Working groups spanning multiple government agencies have been busy implementing DATA Act statutes to stay on deadline. However, in July, the House Oversight Committee asked them to move faster, and questioned the amount of money and time needed to enact the law.
Issa, who has been following the DATA Act’s development, says that pressure will be important as this and other open data laws become commonplace.
“Tightening up standards is a good way of doubling down on an administration in which no amount of money is going to cause them to make this the appropriate priority,” Issa told reporters. “It is an executive branch issue. They will continue to buy new computer systems, they will continue to develop new software that does not comply with the DATA Act, and that’s where strong oversight in the House and the Senate is essential if you’re going to get a government who at the dawn of the computer knew they could have done this and never did.”
Issa wants that oversight to be on all the parts of government involved with DATA Act, including those that watch over how the government is spending its IT dollars. Keeping vendors in check will prevent agencies from depending on vendors who help them with the upkeep of their legacy systems.
“Imagine a world in which government stops making that progress and goes back — what do we do about it,” he said. “You can quickly imagine that if Congress takes its eyes off of the oversight, then the weeks, months, years, decades will go by, and we will still have legacy programs and post-legacy programs, and we can pay a huge price for it.”
Those outside of government can also provide a layer of oversight. Once the DATA Act is in place, Issa believes that Freedom of Information Act requests will drop because requested information will be available via search.
“We envision that metadata will be so easily searched, that when you are looking for it, you won’t have to ask for a FOIA,” he said. “FOIA will be limited to ‘I looked at the data, the data indicates something more, and I have a right to some portion of what’s redacted.’”
But however the future shakes out, Issa said that wide adoption of open data is not going to come overnight. It’s going to take multiple administrations and sessions of Congress to get open data laws right, he said.
“If the next president serves eight years and makes it the highest priority, raising it to the level of Cabinet focus, every part of transparency and compliance, he or she will leave a legacy of a half-done program,” Issa said. “This is where Congress and a continuous body has to work with the executive branch to make sure every step is a step forward, not a step sideways or backwards.”