Obtaining value from DATA Act: Follow the money

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Next month, the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget plan to announce governmentwide data standards for all existing federal spending reports, including common data elements and common data formats. Agencies must begin reporting under those standards in May 2017.

The move supports the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which calls for the government to release machine-readable, standardized appropriations and spending data to the public. The DATA Act will begin to make it possible for the first time to follow government spending. But the DATA Act doesn’t go far enough.

To follow the government money trail backwards — to find who spent it, and on what — we need to make sure that there is a good trail. Currently, OMB and Treasury are deciding what kind of trail should be laid. Their decisions will determine how well and how far we can follow the money. To inform those decisions, it is helpful to think about why people want government financial data, and about the purposes for which it will be used.

User perspective

Until recently, the primary use of federal financial data has been internal management. The public has used USASpending.gov to understand government’s activities and hold government accountable — perhaps with the purpose of increasing public trust in government. There are separate uses for the data, however, that are often ignored.

While the nominal focus of the DATA Act is to present financial data to the public, a very small portion of the public is likely to review and evaluate the data. In fact, the most frequent users will likely be:

  • Media looking for controversial expenditures, waste and duplication (but also helping motivate efficient government that focuses on real public needs).
  • Skeptical congressional staff and OMB analysts who may use it to help determine whether policy priorities are being carried out, and to find waste or duplication.
  • Agency officials who may use it to analyze spending trends, make comparisons and help document subsequent budget requests.
  • Advocates looking for evidence upon which to build a case for their priorities.

Depending on the audience, data gathered and exposed under the DATA Act could:

  • Enable comparison across agencies of revenue, spending, results, and opportunities for agencies to learn from each other. Congress, the media, and outside organizations may use data for this purpose.
  • Inform decisions on policy priorities by analyzing funding, expenditures and the need for public expenditure, as well as by demonstrating the value obtained for money spent. Agencies, their supporters and government program beneficiaries may use data for this purpose.
  • Hold agencies accountable for priorities, expenditures, waste, duplication of spending and receiving poor return on public investments. Congress, media and outside organizations may use data for this purpose.
  • Be aware of agency actions, budget, obligations and expenditures – by agency, geography, mission or program. Agency staff, contractors, grantees, beneficiaries and the media may use data for this purpose.
  • Analyze expenditures to evaluate efficiency, value obtained and consistency of spending with budget priorities. Agency staff, OMB, advocacy groups and the media may use data for this purpose.

Taking a user-based and needs-based perspective will guide efforts and spending, helping to ensure that the DATA Act provides value.

Jeff Myers is a principal at REI Systems.

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Commentary, DATA Act, Guest Columns, Jeff Myers, open data
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