Insights & Ideas

US Government Seeks to Publish Federal Agency Spend Data – But Can They Do it in Time?

The majority of legislation that starts in Congress before it’s sent to the White House for signature by the president often is done under the radar of most Americans.  There are exceptions, of course, that gain a lot of attention and notoriety in the public consciousness, and these are usually controversial laws in areas such as deficit reduction and immigration.

There is a proposed new law recently passed by the House that is long overdue and which I hope grabs the attention of the every citizen.  Named the “Digital Transparency and Accountability Act,” it would make it easier to find and understand federal spending data.

The legislation, (which is likely to become law) will establish much-needed common data standards, and build the infrastructure needed to standardize and publish the federal government's voluminous and often hard-to-find federal spending data – making it easier to access and understand for a wider audience

What makes this Act unique, is that it shows that those in the corridors of power are finally coming to realize the importance of using data to achieve objectives (and the power that data has), for example, providing more transparency on federal agency spending.

However, it’ll be interesting to learn how the government intends to implement the DATA Act.

Law: From planning to implementation 

According to the wording of the proposed law, federal agencies (except for the Department of Defense) will be required to submit their spending data to USASpending.gov, two years after they have been informed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) of what information they need to publish and in what format.

In the private sector, waiting almost three years to learn what you’re spending money on, with whom and on what price is unthinkable.  But here, we’re dealing with the largest government in the world, where change happens slower than a snail’s pace.

For your information, the law states that both the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of the Treasury, “Shall have the ability to aggregate data across defined categories such as appropriations and outlays for each “program activity” and “object class.””

What is especially interesting about the legislation,  is that all published information needs to be machine-readable and downloadable in bulk.

In other words, it looks like the US government is following the UK government’s lead by creating a data store (http://data.gov.uk).  If so, this is a big step forwards, because as soon as the data is publically available to individual taxpayers and organizations, the sooner we’ll witness innovative savings and more.

However, as much as this legislation is a big step forward, I wonder if the government has really planned out how it plans to help federal agencies extract spend data from their most-likely, antiquated IT systems.

The success of this well-intentioned, and must-do Act, will be contingent on getting hands on the information.

The other question at the forefront of my mind, is “how does the aggregator (the OMB) of the information plan to make sense of massive volume of data”?:

  • Does it plan to build or buy a tool that will make sense of it all?
  • Will they go with an on premise solution or take to the cloud?
  • Once the information has been aggregated, will federal agencies work together to leverage spend with suppliers so as to better negotiate better pricing for goods and services?

In other words, there is no point in publishing data for just transparency objectives (bar politics) when federal agencies can actually deliver real and tangible benefits that could help reduce the spending (and the deficit).

My fear, and I’m an optimist by nature, is this herculean task could just be another www.healthcare.gov fiasco in the making.  Unless the government engages with private sector experts(with representatives from small and large companies), professional services and technology firms, to properly plan and implement, then nothing will change how the government is run and managed for (and by) taxpayers.

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