White House calls for major changes to DATA Act

The Office of Management and Budget's markup of the Senate's version of the bill changes language around requiring data standards and how the information should...

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.”

Concerns over the markup

Hudson Hollister, the founder and executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, said the basic purpose of the DATA Act is gone from OMB’s markups because it hampers the two basic steps needed for data transparency: data standardization and online accessibility in one place.

“Unfortunately, OMB’s revisions imperil both steps,” he said. “OMB has rewritten the data standards provision so it’s not really about data standards at all. The word ‘standards’ is still in there but nothing else is. What do we mean when we talk about data standards, we mean that there has to be consistent, governmentwide identifiers for grants and contracts, grantees and contractors. In the revised version from OMB, there is none of that specificity. Instead of anyone being required to set data standards governmentwide for spending, the draft now says ‘OMB shall review and revise if necessary the standards for the consistency of data.’ That requirement could be met with an OMB memo. There’s no requirement for consistent identifiers. There’s no requirement for consistent formats anymore.”

Hollister added OMB removed the requirement in the Senate’s version for agencies to follow the standards, which is a major change.

He said the Government Accountability and Transparency Board (GAT Board) said in December 2011 that transparency can’t happen unless there are governmentwide standards for grants and contracts. OMB’s decision to remove the requirement for consistent formats flies in the face of the GAT Board’s recommendations.

Another significant suggested change to Warner’s bill is around the pilot program run by OMB and Treasury to test out these concepts of a common approach, to eliminate duplication and to reduce compliance costs. Instead, OMB wants to “develop and oversee” the pilot program.

Warner also wanted OMB guidance to come out 90 days after agencies completed the pilot program. The White House changed that timetable to one year after agencies finished testing the new approach.

A third section that saw major changes was on funding. Originally, the bill called for Treasury to use money in its franchise fund to pay for the act’s implementation.

But OMB took out that provision and changed the section heading to reporting requirements.

Reporting requirements moved to one year

In the new section, the administration said one year after the bill becomes law, OMB will submit a report to Congress describing “the review of, and any revisions to, standards to ensure accuracy, consistency through methods such as establishing a linkage between data in agency financial systems and information reported to taxpayers, and describes any actions taken to clarify and standardize definitions on grants and contracts, with a follow up report due one year later providing timeframes when guidance was or will be revised and implemented.”

Hollister said if Warner accepts many of these recommendations the coalition would withdraw its support for the bill.

“We don’t believe this is consistent with the President’s own policy,” Hollister said. “The open data policy sets the seven characteristics of open data. Those characteristics include information should be fully accessible using open data standards, information should be fully published to citizens and whoever needs it. The Executive Order President Obama issued with the open data policy called on his White House staff to make sure these principles get implemented in the federal grants and in the federal procurement arena, which are a major subset of the information covered in the DATA Act. But with these comments on the DATA Act OMB seems to have moved backwards in this position.”


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