Thursday, January 30, 2014

DATA Act, Part 1b: OMB mark-ups

This past Monday, a version of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) that had been marked up by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was leaked. The proposed changes would remove key sections of the bill and undermine the goal of original DATA Act. The Data Transparency Coalition (DTC) website also provides an original copy of the bill.

One of the principle goals of this legislation is to standardize how government spending is reported in order to make it transparent, and to hold federal agencies accountable for their spending. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of the DATA Act by a vote of 388-1 in November 2013, led by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD). Co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH), the bill had unanimous support while passing from its Senate sub-committee.

Some of the key changes proposed by the OMB have been outlined by the Data Transparency Coalition (DTC).
  1. Eliminates data standardization— The OMB’s draft retains the heading of the “Data Standards” section, but modifies most of the section, in turn, removing the requirements for reporting in a common data format. Instead, the draft suggests using “open data structures,” which is vague and does not require standardization.
  2. Eliminates consolidation— The DATA Act will require Treasury Department to publish all federal spending in one location, at the same time on This will reduce redundancy in the current reporting process, and allow the public to find all financial information related to government contractors, programs, grants, and more in one place. The changes remove this consolidation and integration of financial data.
  3. Puts the OMB in charge— In the original version of the DATA Act, the Treasury Department is put in charge of establishing data standards. The revised bill replaces the references to the Treasury with the OMB.
  4. Removes several purposes from the bill— The bill includes four “Purposes”, outlined in “Section 2: PURPOSES”. If one toggles between the original and marked up versions, it can be seen that there are several changes in this section alone; among those are changes to Purpose (4), which originally read:

    “improve the quality of data submitted to by holding Federal agencies accountable for the completeness and accuracy of the data submitted”

    The OMB proposes that Purpose (4) instead read:

    "improve the quality of data submitted to”

    The words “accountable”, “completeness” and “accuracy” have been removed from the purposes of the DATA Act. An underlying goal of the Act is, in part, to improve government accountability.

  5. Inconsistent with the Obama Administration Policy—The legislation has been heralded by many as a key piece of bipartisan legislation, with both parties working together to improve government transparency and accountability. The White House itself has also widely vocalized support for a more transparent government, even devoting a White House website page in part to the idea (entitled, “Transparency and Open Government”).

    In part, this page states that the White House, “…is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” And it goes on to say that, “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset.”

    The White House also issued an executive order to this effect in May 2013, and issued an open data policy the same day that in part defined what is meant by “open data”. On the other hand, the White House has not weighed in with support for the DATA Act.

Frank Benenati, spokesman at OMB, has said the following to FedScoop in an email:

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. … 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.

Since Monday’s publication of the OMB’s proposed changes to the Act, many of the leaders pushing for data transparency have made public statements denouncing their support if the revised Act were passed. Here are a few examples.

Sen. Mark Warner, Democratic Senator from Virginia; co-sponsor of the Senate version of the DATA Act:

The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act. 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.

Rep. Darrell Issa, Republican Congressman from California; Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; co-sponsor of the House version of the DATA Act; a spokesman for Rep. Issa told the Washington Post the following:

Chairman Issa strongly agrees with Senator Warner that OMB’s apparent efforts to strip out meaningful transparency reforms from the bipartisan DATA Act are unacceptable

Hudson Hollister, Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition:

Federal spending data could become a valuable public resource — both for our democracy and those seeking new high-tech business opportunities — if it is fully standardized and published under the DATA Act. Unfortunately, OMB's proposed revisions would nullify the bill's main purpose to standardize and publish government data, contrary to the clear consensus that has brought together both parties, both chambers, and advocacy groups across the political spectrum. We cannot support the DATA Act if it becomes a dead letter. We hope that President Obama will clarify that he supports real reform that meets the principles expressed in his own Open Data Policy.
OMB's version of the DATA Act is not a bill that the Sunlight Foundation can support. If OMB's suggestions are ultimately added to the legislation, we will join our friends at the Data Transparency Coalition and withdraw our support of the DATA Act.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:

OMB’s position is in contradiction to the president’s stance on using open data to make government transparent and accountable and undermines landmark legislation that promotes federal spending transparency

How do you see the proposed changes to the DATA Act by the OMB?

What do you think are the next steps for the DATA Act?

More in this series:
  • Part 1What is the DATA Act? Is there a need for change? How much would it cost?
  • Part 2Will it improve government reporting? How might XBRL be involved?
  • Part 3: The U.S. Senate unanimously passes the DATA Act.
  • Part 4: The U.S. House re-passes the DATA Act, this time unanimously.