A digital revolution in government spending

By Rep. Darrell Issa
The Hill
04/29/2014

The democratic character of self government rests on the people’s right to know how their government spends the tax dollars it takes from them.  As government has exponentially grown, accountability has eroded – but technology can reverse this troubling trend with the passage of bipartisan legislation called the DATA Act.

Imagine if all 32 Major League Baseball teams calculated batting averages differently, used varying definitions for what constituted a fielding error, and didn’t even bother to record some numbers like strikeouts.  You’d still have games and thrilling field action, but statistics across the league would have little value for comparing player performance across teams.  Managers, media, and fans looking for measurable and meaningful performance data about highly paid professionals would be left in the dark.  Does this sound backward, even dysfunctional?

The federal government’s current efforts to track how your tax dollars are spent aren’t far off this scenario.  It’s not just the American people that are kept in the dark.  Neither President Obama nor myself (as chairman of the Oversight Committee) can easily tell you exactly how government funds were finally used in grant x, contract y, or employee z across federal agencies.

According to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on duplication and waste in federal programs, many agencies were not even able to tell the GAO’s investigators how much taxpayer money is being spent on a given program.  This is not accountable government.

To address this dysfunction, Congress this month unanimously approved bipartisan spending reform legislation that forces government agencies to define, harmonize, and track how agencies across government spend and account for taxpayer dollars.  President Obama has agreed to sign the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act.  The DATA Act will bring the unwieldy bureaucracy out of the last century and into the watchful public eye by improving accuracy of federal spending data with rigorous reporting standards.

At a recent Oversight Committee hearing on the report, U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro pointed to the DATA Act’s reporting requirements as a solution.  Dodaro described the DATA Act as, “one of the biggest single things that could be done in order to provide more transparency on the cost of [federal] program activities.”

I introduced the first version of the DATA Act in 2011.  Its inspiration came from a relatively small expense in the Obama administration’s 2009 “Stimulus” spending bill – a bill that overall I didn’t and still don’t support.  The stimulus temporarily established an entity called the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.  This board was chaired by a respected former Inspector General, Earl Devaney – President Obama once recognized him during a State of the Union Address.  Under Devaney’s leadership, the Board established direct reporting requirements for Stimulus projects and standardized federal agency reporting in a searchable format that allowed inspectors general and other law enforcement agencies to more effectively prosecute fraud and prevent improper payments.  Furthermore, this information was made available to the public online in easy-to-download, easy-to-manipulate format so that journalists, academics, and government watchdogs could more easily analyze stimulus spending.

I met with Vice President Joe Biden in November of 2010 prior to becoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  Despite our complete disagreement about the underlying policy of the Stimulus, we both concurred that the Recovery Board’s successes could and should be replicated across the entire federal government.

The version of the DATA Act advanced in the Senate by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) earlier this month represents a compromise hammered out between sponsors in the House and Senate and reflects considerable feedback from pro-transparency reformers within federal agencies.

The DATA Act mandates that federal agencies track every dollar program by program, and it extends the same kind of structured data reporting formats to all government spending.  The legislation directs agencies to streamline and simplify recipient reporting requirements and establishes a two-year pilot for consolidated reporting for states, localities, universities, and other recipients of federal taxpayer funds.  The legislation authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to establish a data analytics center modeled on the Recovery Operations Center that would provide a resource to inspectors general and law enforcement agencies.  Government spending information will be made available to the public on a single website, USASpending.gov.

The DATA Act will give lawmakers and public watchdogs powerful tools to identify and root out waste, fraud, and abuse in government.  But the benefits to simplifying and publishing the government’s spending data don’t end there.  Once information is available online, businesses and startups will be able to innovate in a new information ecosystem, providing the high-tech sector with opportunities to analyze government data.

Government waste is not a partisan issue.  Transparency advocates on both sides of the aisle have a favorite saying, a paraphrase of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: ‘sunshine is the best disinfectant.’  Think of the DATA Act as sunshine goes digital.