New standards that aim to make agencies’ spending data simpler to understand have sparked worries among some experts.
The Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department unveiled 57 standards, a guidance and an abbreviated DATA Act Playbook Friday to help agencies adhere to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which requires the government to make financial data more transparent and accessible.
While Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, told FedScoop that the standards and guidance are a good start, they fell short in several areas.
“The guidance is frustrating in one respect: It doesn’t exactly say what agencies have to do with specific pieces of data,” Hollister said. “It mostly says, ‘Watch for more information from Treasury on how to report using these elements and this schema.'”
Likewise, the new standards and guidance make little mention of recipient reporting — that is, data on money awarded to nonprofits and companies through contracts and awards — even though it’s a major part of the law, Hollister said.
The coalition’s biggest issue with the standards, Hollister said, stems from the continued use of the DUNS — short for “data universal numbering system” — number in financial reporting to identify private contractors. Though the DUNS number has served as a critical link between the disparate reporting systems, he said, the nine-digit identifiers are privately owned by the company Dun & Bradstreet Inc. Users must pay for a license to view the corresponding business information.
“Treasury and OMB are wrong to consider retaining the DUNS number,” Hollister said. If a user has to pay to use a number to access data, he said, that data is not publicly available. “That’s regrettable because the goal of the DATA Act is to open up federal spending.”
The Center for Data Innovation took a similar stance on the proprietary DUNS system. Joshua New, a policy analyst with at the center, told FedScoop in an emailed statement the use of the numbers are “antithetical to the principles of open and transparent government.”
“A 2012 GAO report found the use of DUNS numbers drives up costs, restricts how the GSA can use this data, and effectively grants Dun & Bradstreet a monopoly on government identifiers,” he said.
Many of the data elements, though, are not finalized and are currently open to public comment on the law’s GitHub page. New said the responses could play a critical role in a move away from the DUNS system.
“Hopefully OMB and the Treasury will incorporate feedback from the GAO and stakeholders who have expressed concern about this issue on GitHub to adopt a data standard for government identifiers that is open, rather than proprietary,” he said.
Despite those early concerns, several leaders applauded the standards and guidance.
“I’m pleased that OMB and Treasury have issued, for the first time, requirements for all federal agencies to make spending data more accessible, searchable, and reliable,” Sen. Mark Warner, the Democrat from Virginia who co-authored the law with Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, said in a statement. “Streamlining this data will be no small task and I applaud them for putting forward a comprehensive and innovative plan to achieve these important goals.”
Beth Cobert, OMB’s deputy director for management, wrote in the guidance memo that the two agencies’ work lays the groundwork for the DATA Act’s ultimate goal: making financial data more accessible to the public. Passed last year, the DATA Act requires agencies by May 9, 2017, 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 making Federal spending data more accessible, searchable, and reliable, and joining this information with other third party data sources, Federal agencies and taxpayers have an opportunity to better understand the impact of Federal funds and improve the lives of the American public,” she said in the memo.
Hollister also tipped his cap to OMB’s and Treasury’s work so far.
“No mistake, what they have done in the last one year since the DATA Act passed, tremendous amounts of work; they had to come up with these 57 data elements, they had to publish them to everybody, they had to take all of these suggestions from agencies,” he said. “This is the world’s largest and most complicated organization in history that we’re talking about, and they had to figure out these standards to govern spending across the whole gigantic corpus.”
That said, OMB and Treasury still have a mountain of work ahead.
In addition to finalizing the standards, 42 of which are still open for public comment, Treasury is still working on the DATA Act Schema, “a standard taxonomy and a standard format, or ‘language,’ for exchanging data and provides a comprehensive view of the data definition standards and their relationships to one another,” OMB said in its guidance. Also, Treasury is currently piloting the schema with agencies and plans to issue further guidance when the pilots are complete.
There are also questions about the opening of federal payments data, something a Treasury representative promised three years ago during testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“Those payment requests are the most detailed source of information about spending we have,” Hollister said of the currently restricted data. “We’re looking for more clarity on how that promise from three years ago fits in with the work we’re doing today.”