Spending transparency, smarter government

This month, American taxpayers will for the first time get a comprehensive look at how the federal government spends their tax dollars -- roughly $4 trillion per year.

Nearly three years ago, on May 9, 2014, former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaIntelligence for the days after President Trump leaves office Barack Obama sends Valentine's message to Michelle: 'She does get down to Motown' For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love MORE signed the DATA Act into law, authorizing the most powerful government transparency mandate since Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966.


But transforming the way our government spends and tracks taxpayers’ dollars hasn’t been easy. The work began almost six years ago, back in 2011, when I first introduced the DATA Act. Joining the Senate Budget Committee after a career in business and then managing our state budget as governor of Virginia, I was struck by the lack of consistent standards for financial data across the federal government.

There is an old business adage: ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure.’ Policymakers—whose job it is to evaluate the effectiveness of federally funded programs, grants, and projects--were doing so using inconsistent, unreliable, and often-irreconcilable financial data. Oftentimes we lacked any data at all. As a result, for example, an agency couldn’t tell you how much it was spending on workforce training out of its total program budget, because that level of detail wasn’t available.  Attempts to identify duplication across agencies were constantly thwarted by agencies using inconsistent financial data dictionaries, and relying on incompatible reporting systems for their grants and contracts.  

The DATA Act set the government on a road to reform to accomplish a basic goal - publishing all federal spending information in a single open data set, searchable across all agencies, programs, contracts, and grants, using common financial data standards.

By setting up a standard data format, and putting all the information into a single open data set that’s easily accessible, we’ve enabled policymakers, taxpayers, and watchdogs to identify and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, and to measure the impact and efficacy of federal projects.

Upon the publication of a single federal spending data set, taxpayers will get a clear picture of how their government is spending their dollars. The DATA Act will give citizens the ability to search through federal agencies’ spending reports, line item by line item, and dig into the details of each one - just like an online bank statement or phone bill.  At the same time, this open, machine-readable financial data will bolster data aggregation and analysis efforts like the recently launched USA Facts project, with the Act offering unprecedented granularity in spending information, and centralizing financial data from disparate agencies and programs in a single place.  

Similarly, federal agencies will be equipped to view their own spending in new ways, program-by-program, contract-by-contract, and grant-by-grant. Teams in the U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the White House Office of Budget and Management (OMB) have been hard at work over the past three years, conducting wide-ranging stakeholder engagement and developing the first government-wide agile tech project for the federal government, a revamped USASpending.gov.

The law also supports accountability within agencies, equipping Inspectors General with the tools to keep our federal agencies’ spending in check and honest. Inspectors General will be able to use data analytics, instead of paper, to audit their agencies’ spending data, just like private-sector companies that are subject to internal financial audits. Ultimately, watchdogs can use data to fight fraud, weed out waste, and target abuse.

As a result, members of Congress and their staffs will have a better ability to oversee federal agencies, with readily accessible information on remaining balances in agency accounts, and a clear flow of where federal dollars go: from congressionally-approved budgets all the way to the eventual contract or grant. Ultimately this new capability will deliver a more efficient, accountable, and transparent government.

It wasn’t an easy journey, but the benefits to citizens and to our government will outweigh the challenges we took on to bring the DATA Act from idea to law to reality.

At a time of partisan politics, this month’s milestone should serve as a reminder to both sides that bipartisanship remains alive. When we work together, Congress can improve government for all: The DATA Act was smart, no-brainer legislation. This month and in the coming months, we’ll see the results of the DATA Act’s reforms as they are made public, and I encourage everyone to go to Treasury’s DATA Act site and explore for yourself.

Now that government spending information is becoming more open, searchable, and accessible, there are new possibilities for better government management and transparency initiatives.   

Once a reform like the DATA Act is signed into law, it does not come to fruition without months or years of agency-led implementation. The burden falls on Congress to continue to support the agency-led DATA Act implementation efforts at Treasury and OMB and across each federal agency. But it also falls on the new administration, which has expressed an interest in modernizing government and eliminating waste, to fully embrace this effort and devote sufficient resources to fulfill the true potential of this groundbreaking, bipartisan law.

As we hit the first major milestone for the DATA Act and approach future deadlines, we must acknowledge that the journey towards more complete financial transparency and accountability is just getting started. I urge my congressional colleagues, and the new administration, to remain committed to this bipartisan initiative. We must see it through.

Warner is a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.