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Recently, in a victory for open data, both chambers of Congress passed with bipartisan support the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. The bill now heads to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature. The DATA Act would drastically improve the public’s access to federal spending data by expanding the universe of information the government is required to post online and creating government-wide financial data standards.
Leading the effort to implement the law’s provisions will be the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget. Treasury is a promising open data steward, but unfortunately the OMB’s history doesn’t inspire confidence in its commitment to the law.
Treasury has made good-faith efforts to answer questions, accept feedback and collaborate on designing the new face of federal spending. It reached out to a broad community of users and established avenues for public input. These efforts, combined with its expertise in government financials, have all the makings of a vastly improved system.
The OMB, however, has fallen short as the agency in charge of earlier efforts to open up federal spending data, namely USASpending.gov.
USASpending.gov, the one-stop shop for the government’s financial information, launched in 2007, and it later became the cornerstone of Obama’s government transparency agenda. But it has been mired in accuracy problems. In 2013, the federal government spent $3.8 trillion, but according to USASpending.gov that total was only $2.3 trillion. That $1.5 trillion difference is the size of the entire budget of Germany or France.
The OMB has actively fought against congressional efforts to improve data access and quality, even going so far as to testify against the DATA Act, and push its own ill-fated rewrite that gutted the most important provisions. Not a good sign within an administration claiming to want to be the most transparent in history.
It’s difficult to see how an agency that didn’t support the DATA Act could elicit confidence in implementing the law. But we hope that by working alongside the Treasury Department, the OMB will succeed in helping the DATA Act achieve its true potential.
We’re optimistic that this legislation will give us a true window into the government’s priorities. Our nation’s balance sheet is more compelling than its rhetoric, especially as budget gamesmanship — and even a government shutdown — have replaced political discourse and the formal budget process.
Matt Rumsey is the policy associate at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable to all.