The DATA Act just passed the Senate. Here’s why that matters.


The U.S. Capitol building stands in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012.(Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

This afternoon, the Senate passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, legislation aimed at shedding light on government spending data. An earlier version of the legislation passed the House in November.  It is expected by supporters on the Hill to easily pass again.

Why does the DATA Act matter? Right now it's difficult for the public to get a full look at government expenditures and make sure the government is being held accountable. And open data advocates argue that when the private sector gets access to government data, it could find new ways to leverage it -- creating new services for consumers and new jobs.

Often, data isn't always available, or when it is, it's not available in formats that can be easily compared.

That's  "pretty unbelievable in this day and age," said sponsor Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) in a speech on the Senate floor about the bill's passage by unanimous consent. The DATA Act would fix that problem by establishing government-wide financial data standards for all federal funds spent by agencies or other entities receiving money. The measure would also centralize where most government financial data will be published online.

"The DATA Act takes a structured data model that has delivered unprecedented accountability in stimulus expenditures and applies it across all domains of federal spending," says Data Transparency Coalition Executive Director Hudson Hollister, who helped draft the initial version of the DATA Act in 2011. "The DATA Act will turn federal spending information into open spending data – a valuable new public resource that strengthens democratic accountability and spurs innovation."

“During a time of record $17 trillion debt, our bipartisan bill will help identify and eliminate wasteful spending by better tracking federal spending," co-sponsor Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). "I am pleased that our bill to improve federal financial transparency and empower taxpayers to see how their money is spent has passed the Senate, and I urge swift passage in the House of Representatives.”

The version passed by the Senate doesn't set a specific format for the data standard but does require it to be "a widely-accepted, nonproprietary, searchable, platform-independent computer readable format"  and "include unique identifiers for Federal awards and entities receiving Federal awards that can be consistently applied Government-wide."

The final language also requires everything the federal government spends at the appropriations account level to be published on USASpending.gov, with the exception of classified material and information that wouldn't be revealed in response to a Freedom of Information Request. One amendment, added earlier Thursday, gives the Department of Defense the option to request extensions on its implementation of the bill's requirements.

This could potentially be a big boon for government efficiency watchdogs, who would have more access than ever before to inspect the financial activities of the government for efficiency, fraud or just poor accounting practices. And there are reasons to believe that the government could do a better job on those fronts. Last week, the State Department's Inspector General's office issued an alert after it found that the department has incomplete files or was missing files for more than $6 billion worth of contracts from the past six years.

In testimony before  the House Oversight Committee earlier this week, Government Accountability Office Comptroller General Gene Dodaro called the DATA Act "one of the single biggest things you could do" to help find and fix wasteful programs. The bill, he said, would "standardize the data so you could compare the data across agencies -- which you can't do now." House sponsor Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) cited Dodaro's comments, saying in a statement, "I am pleased we are one step closer to getting this legislation enacted."

The Senate version of the bill gives the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget joint control over implementation of the plan -- which may be a somewhat complicated situation, because some advocates worried that OMB was attempting to water down the legislation in earlier assessments. But the White House has also taken a lead on open data, with President Obama issuing an executive order on making federal government data "open and machine-readable" by default last May. The policy is still being enacted at different paces throughout government.

House side lead sponsor Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) applauded the Senate action, saying he would work to "send this bipartisan, bicameral compromise to the President’s desk.”

“The American taxpayer deserves to know when, where and how his or her money is spent," Issa said in a statement. "Without accurate, timely, program by program spending data, we will never be able to truly track federal spending, which is the only way we can address the massive amount of waste and fraud in government."

Sources close to the bill suggested it likely would not reach the House floor for a vote until late in the month, but expected it to pass and be sent to the president for his signature.

Correction: An earlier version of this post listed an original draft date of 2009 for the DATA Act, but it was actually drafted in 2011. We regret the error. 

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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