White House calls for major changes to DATA Act

Monday - 1/27/2014, 5:31pm EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The White House wants major revisions to the Senate's version of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014.

Among the biggest changes is the decision to move away from standards and toward open data structures to publish information, according to a marked up version of the DATA Act obtained by Federal News Radio.

OMB gave the bill to agencies Friday midday to comment on with a deadline of 5 p.m. that day. OMB's Barbara Menard, the assistant director for legislative reference, wrote in a memo to other legislative affairs officers that they should share the marked up bill with their agency's CFO, chief information officer, budget, procurement and grant/financial assistance components.

"We specifically would like to know your sense of the effort required to meet the amended requirements in the longer timeframes culling obligations by object class by fund symbol from your financial systems, and culling obligations by program by fund symbol assuming program corresponds to an allotment or sub-allotment of agency choosing in consultation with RMOs," Menard wrote. "Your views on the pilot program and specifically that it will touch the grants and financial assistance, procurement, and financial reporting communities; and your views on the debt collection provisions at the end of the bill."

The original bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), called for the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management to establish governmentwide financial data standards for all federal funds and include common data elements for financial payment information. The legislation also called for the standards to be maintained by a voluntary consensus standards body, federal agencies with the authority over contracting and financial assistance and accounting standards organizations.

But the White House's marked up bill shows major changes, including requiring OMB in consultation with Treasury to "review and, if necessary, revise standards to ensure accuracy and consistency through methods such as establishing linkages between data in agency financial systems … ."

Push to open data, not standards

Additionally, the administration suggested OMB and Treasury would "clarify and standardize definitions on grants and contracts used by agencies and entities that receive federal funds," and "shall prescribe the use of open data structures to publish information … ."

The administration also wants to remove all the subsections under requirements for data and implementation, and just require agencies to have a standard method of reporting the data.

And where the data resides is another sticking point. Warner wanted agencies through the USASpending.gov site to make all financial, procurement and grant data public and to offer the ability to download in bulk.

But OMB makes two major changes, including not calling out USASpending.gov, but saying the information should be posted to "a site determined by the director of OMB, the amount of budget authority appropriated, other budgetary resources, obligations and unobligated balances for each appropriations account, both expires and unexpired." OMB does call on agencies to use USASpending.gov to post data obligated and outlayed for each program as well as for each object class. Additionally, OMB wants agencies to update the data quarterly and not monthly as called for in Warner's version.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed an amended version of DATA Act in November. But the new version of the bill never got time on the Senate floor for debate or a vote.

"The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act," Warner said, in a statement. "DATA reflects years of bipartisan, bicameral work, and to propose substantial, unproductive changes this late in the game is unacceptable. We look forward to passing the DATA Act, which had near universal support in its House passage and passed unanimously out of its Senate Committee. I will not back down from a bill that holds the government accountable and provides taxpayers the transparency they deserve."

The White House said its markup of the Senate's version also seeks to address concerns they have received over the House's version of the bill. The House passed its version of the DATA Act in November.

"The Administration believes data transparency is a critical element to good government, and we share the goal of advancing transparency and accountability of federal spending," a White House spokesman said. "We will continue to work with Congress and other stakeholders to identify the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars to accomplish this goal."