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Steve's Take: The power of transparency

May. 6, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEVEN WATKINS   |   Comments
Steve Watkins, Managing Editor of Federal Times.

Itís an election year. Democrats and Republicans are as polarized as ever. And data suggests this is the least productive Congress in U.S. history. So what are the odds Congress could pass a substantive policy measure unanimously?

Last month, it happened.

The Data Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act ó which supporters call the most significant government transparency legislation since the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 ó was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate.

The support for the DATA Act is well deserved. It promises to dramatically overhaul the way federal spending data is managed, presented to the public, and used to hold agencies accountable for waste, fraud and mismanagement.

The bill will force executive branch agencies to adopt common standards as they track and report their contract spending, grant awards and other disbursements. This means all spending data can be consolidated onto a single website so anyone can download it, search through it, and slice and dice it to find helpful information about how tax dollars are being spent and who is benefiting ó or not. (The legislative and judicial branches are exempted, as is certain sensitive data that could jeopardize national security.)

Increased oversight and accountability will force agencies to improve the accuracy and thoroughness of the spending data they report, which is sorely needed.

But agencies will benefit by getting better intelligence to pinpoint opportunities where they can reduce prices, cut waste, fight fraud and promote smarter spending behaviors.

Industry groups also support the bill because it will streamline their reporting requirements and give them valuable business intelligence on how their competition is doing.

So who wouldnít support this?

Oddly, the Obama White House has been silent about this measure before and after its passage. President Obama is sure to sign the bill since it forcefully advances his own transparency and open data policies. But it is clear that the Office of Management and Budget has serious reservations about this legislation. A leaked OMB document in January seeking revisions of the bill revealed that OMB sought to significantly water it down.

Thatís a very troubling sign since OMB, along with the Treasury Department, will be responsible for implementing the legislation.

President Obama has spoken much about the need for more government transparency. But the open government community has been disappointed by many of his administrationís actions that favor secrecy over transparency. Now is the presidentís chance to walk the walk on transparency by instructing OMB to move out aggressively in achieving the vision that this bill represents.

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