DATA Act victory sets stage for expected tough implementation

Wednesday - 4/30/2014, 4:07am EDT

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President Barack Obama will sign the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) into law this week — a legislative victory for the open government community.

But getting S. 994 through Congress and to the President's desk may actually have been the easy part of this nearly three-year effort.

The hard part will be in the bill's implementation, current and former government experts say.

There are several lessons from the challenges and, some would say, failures of Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) — really the last major governmentwide bill that attempted to improve data access — that the current crop of federal leaders should heed.

The first lesson is leadership from the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Treasury is without a doubt a must-have.

"It's time to sort of roll up our sleeves, particularly them since they are at the center of implementation. As everyone has said here, they need to work with the various constituencies," said Kathleen Tighe, the chairwoman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RAT Board) and the Education Department's inspector general, Tuesday at the Data Transparency Summit sponsored by the Data Transparency Coalition in Washington. "Let's come up with a plan that meets the timetable. I don't want to give up right now and say those timetables are never going to be met. I don't think that's where we should start off the conversation. I think the expectation should be that those timetables in fact are met and maybe even improved upon."

Tighe said leadership of the IGs is one of the reasons the Recovery Board found success.

"We really changed the conversation about transparency and accountability, although we were not the first federal venture into transparency — think of FFATA and earlier ventures. Nor were we the first venture into accountability. I think putting those two concepts together in a board of independent IGs was a very unique way of going about business and, I think, ultimately a successful experiment," she said. "It's been clear to us on the board that transparency really does drive accountability, both in terms of making the public part of the process, these are the so-called citizen IGs that transparency gives an opportunity to put out there. But also in terms of enhancing the quality of information related to federal spending that is really critical to the data analysis that we have done to detect fraud, waste and abuse."

Data standards already underway

OMB and Treasury have been fairly mum on their support for the DATA Act.

Earlier versions of the bill received less than a warm welcome from the White House, including a series of suggested changes that some said would have gutted the bill.

But with the passage by the Senate on April 10 and by the House on April 28, the White House signaled Wednesday the President will sign it into law.

"The administration shares Sen. [Mark] Warner's (D-Va.) commitment to government transparency and accountability, and appreciates his leadership in Congress on this issue," said OMB spokesman Steve Posner in an emailed statement. "The administration supports the objectives of the DATA Act and looks forward to working with Congress on implementing the new data standards and reporting requirements within the realities of the current constrained budget environment and agency financial systems."

A big part of what the DATA Act calls for is either already underway or meshes closely with current data standardization and transparency efforts.

Dick Ginman, the chairman of the Government Accountability and Transparency Board (GAT Board) and the director of Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy, said there is no daylight between what the GAT Board is doing and the requirements under the DATA Act, especially around data standards and increasing transparency.

For example, Ginman said there is a Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) case that he expects to be finalized this year to standardize CAGE Codes, which would let interested parties see the ownership connections between companies, as well as how different listings for the same company are connected together.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) highlighted this problem at a March hearing where she found 80 different instances in the System for Award Management program for Lockheed Martin.

Ginman said standardizing CAGE Codes would solve that problem.

He also said agencies are using unique identifiers for contracts across the government. Ginman pointed to this as another problematic area, where, for example, one agency had at least six different formats for contract listings.