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The DATA Act: A Brief History

Data, when shared with external parties, should have a particular set of features. Namely, it should be of high quality, accurate, complete, and, perhaps most importantly of all, accessible. Sadly, it’s historically been difficult to get hold of such data when it comes to information about public spending in America.

Such information shortfalls have been addressed through a number of different pieces of legislation, one of the most important being the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, known more commonly as the DATA Act.

What does the DATA Act seek to achieve?

In brief, the DATA Act is in place in order to provide the American people with more information and clarity on federal spending. It aims to achieve a number of different objectives, including improving the accuracy, comparability, usefulness, and availability of information related to federal spending, while also supporting the development of government-wide data standards.

Under the DATA Act, every federal agency has to use a common reporting framework to provide spending data to the U.S. Treasury on a quarterly basis. Responsibility for the Act’s implementation is jointly shared by the U.S. Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget.

Why was it introduced?

The DATA Act was not the first piece of legislation that was introduced in order to try and improve the transparency of federal spending.

In some ways, the DATA Act’s existence is thanks to legislation such as the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which introduced measures designed to put certain items of federal spending in excess of $25,000 on a publicly accessible and searchable website, USAspending.gov.

However, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act was not a complete success, with some issues identified with respect to both the data available on USAspending and how useful it ultimately was.

Fast forward several years, and in 2011 the DATA Act was first introduced. Although the Act underwent numerous changes, it was finally signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014.

How is implementation going?

Although the DATA Act was passed in 2014, it’s still early days when it comes to the actual implementation of the legislation, as the first submission deadline only came into effect in 2017.

As a result, it’s not surprising to note that there are still some teething problems when it comes to implementation. In July this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on the quality of agencies’ spending data and found that a number of agencies had provided data that was not “complete, timely, accurate, or of quality”. In particular, higher error rates seemed to appear with regard to the accuracy of the data reported, which is not an encouraging sign.

However, it’s more than likely that reporting standards will improve over the coming years as agencies make improvements to data quality, so all hope is not lost.

What’s more, progress appears to be underway in other areas, such as the U.S. Treasury’s launch of Data Lab in April 2018.

Data Lab allows visitors to the site to view and analyze various aspects of government spending and also comes with the ability to download data, for example through an Application Programming Interface (API). There are also specific reports featured on the site, such as the homelessness analysis, which highlights grant spending on homelessness. Data Lab is part of the wider USAspending.gov website.

Given the above advances, provided the quality of data reporting itself can improve within the next few years, the future looks bright for the DATA Act, and it should hopefully lead to better data analysis and more effective and efficient government spending.

You can read the text of the DATA Act in full here.

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