By Dan Verton
A coalition of technology companies on Tuesday launched a major lobbying effort aimed at showing members of Congress that data transparency in federal spending is not only possible, but could be achieved in short order using standard markup languages and electronic identifiers that the commercial world has been leveraging for years.
But Congress must first pass into law the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or Data Act, before the deployment of such industry standard technologies could put an end to fraud, waste and abuse in federal spending by making detailed information about where and how every tax dollar is being spent.
“What we’re talking about in the Data Act has been done successfully in the private sector for years and is technologically able to be put into place tomorrow,” said Tim Day, vice president of public affairs at Teradata, one of the members of the so-called Data Transparency Coalition, which includes other technology heavyweights such as Microsoft and SAP.
“What we’re talking about is real but it can’t be done unless the Senate acts. This cannot happen, and in our opinion will not happen, without legislation enforcing and requiring it.”
The Data Act, proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), passed the House in April and is now pending action in the Senate. The legislation would create an independent board that would track all federal spending and make it available in a fully searchable format on a Web site that would consolidate the existing USAspending.gov and Recovery.gov Web sites.
Hudson Hollister, the founder of the Data Transparency Coalition (DTC), helped write the Data Act in his former role working for Rep. Issa on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He said the main obstacle to transparency in federal spending is not technology, but organization and standardization.
Standardization work helped (eight) states recoup about $1.8 billion in tax revenue.”
“The government is already generating and collecting all of the information that we need to find waste and fraud, cut unnecessary spending, and give taxpayers an accurate conception of what their money is doing,” said Hollister. “But because this data is being reported through separate channels and in incompatible formats across eight separate systems within five separate agencies, the separate compilations cannot be searched or checked against each other for accuracy.”
The technological answer, according to Hollister and the member companies of the DTC, has already been used for years across some of the biggest companies in the private sector. And throughout interviews conducted by Breaking Gov and presentations made during the Data Demo Day forum, coalition members pressed home the importance of standard electronic identifiers and common markup languages, such as XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language).
“If we had common government-wide electronic identifiers for such concepts as agency, program, recipient and award, then spending data collected by different agencies and stored in different places for different purposes would be searchable and digestible in one place,” said Hollister. And “if we applied common markup languages for reports that grantees, contractors and agencies have to file then there would be no need for manual transcription.”
An enterprise-wide view of federal spending is impossible without standardization, said Hollister. “But the interesting thing about the Data Act is that it moves the idea of standardization to all government funding,” Hollister said. “It puts treasury expenditure information, agency obligations and disbursements and reports from grantees and contractors all in one platform. It establishes a single tagging system for all three of those categories.”
More importantly, Hollister and other DTC member companies underscored the fact that such standardization would not require any new system purchases or major changes to agency IT systems, and would also not require agencies to begin collecting additional or different data.
“Most of the proposed solutions to the government’s spending reporting problems stem from new systems, utopian solutions,” said Hollister. “We don’t need a new system, we don’t need to collect different data. We just need to tag what’s already there.”
“It starts with identification of common data across the government and then taking what each agency has and the unique terms they use to identify it and mapping it to a standardized model,” said Bill Franks, Teradata’s chief analytics officer. “The core of the technology enablers is standardized data structures so there’s a consistent format and layout of the data. One of the other key components is standard identifiers for contractors and grant recipients across agencies,” he said. “This is really not anything cutting edge or revolutionary. It is proven.”
To reinforce its point, Teradata described work it did on behalf of eight states to integrate data on taxes. The standardization work helped those states recoup about $1.8 billion in tax revenue.
Even Microsoft has leveraged the power of standard data models and tagging for its internal operations, said Hollister. The company deployed XBRL for its internal financial reporting without having to make any changes to existing systems.
All we have to do is tag the data we already have and publish it, and the impact will be profound,” said Hollister. “It means federal managers will be able to make better decisions, Congress will be able to make better appropriations decisions, and taxpayers will be able to see where their money is going.”
Once the law is passed, which Hollister thinks can happen this year, the DTC will also begin promoting the benefits of standardization across other areas of government, including regulatory filings, legislative actions, judicial documents, and program performance.