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U.S. Treasury Department headquarters. Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com

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A Visit to Treasury’s DATA Act Nerve Center

Spending transparency is just the first step—the real reward is in measuring program outcomes.

On Sept. 30, agencies across government got access to a new internal Web portal called the “DATA ACT Broker,” where agencies can submit spending data and where data technicians can find the validation rules for ensuring the high quality of that information.

The portal was designed using open-source code by a small shop of 10 employees in Treasury’s fiscal service unit at department headquarters. Their goal? To speed agencies along in the race to meet the May 2017 deadline for standardizing and making public government spending data as required by the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

“Last fiscal year, the government had $3.8 trillion in outlays according to the latest monthly statement,” Christina Ho, deputy assistant secretary for accounting policy and financial transparency, told Government Executive. The challenge to publishing all the spending line items in a meaningful way, “is that we have 400 interconnected data elements that we’re getting from hundreds of systems across the government that don’t usually talk to each other,” she said.

Under the law, Treasury—performing the unprecedented software planning to fulfill policy guidance provided to agencies by the Office of Management and Budget—has just two years to execute a harmonization that Ho, a veteran of Deloitte and other Treasury financial systems reforms, said ordinarily “would take two years to plan and four years to launch.”

It has never been done at this scale, she said.

There has been skepticism about the prospects for OMB and Treasury getting agencies on the same page for reporting high quality, standardized and reader-friendly data for the evolving, decade-old USAspending.gov website.

The Government Accountability Office, in a report last August, warned that "the continued reliance on existing source systems with known data quality challenges . . . raises concerns about the quality of the data submitted to USASpending.gov." And back in April 2015, Treasury’s earliest attempts at revising data presentation on USAspending drew brickbats from transparency groups, who found definitions unclear and were irked by the lack of an advanced search function and mapping tools.

But Dave Lebryk, the fiscal assistant secretary and career Treasury official coordinating the project, told Government Executive he is “pleased with progress” among highly varied agencies that are “enormously complex entities.”

In the “earlier, rougher implementation, we hadn’t talked to the end user, but with the new Treasury broker, there will be smooth implementation,” he said, because staff have determined how to connect effectively with users who have different needs. Some are casual users scanning the website, others will want sophisticated search tools, and still others will want to download data for their own analysis, Lebryk said.

His regular talks with GAO leaders “have been very helpful to us.” Both the gathering of the agency spending data and the redesign of USAspending.gov, he added, “are setting the foundation for best practices. I’m very excited.”

‘Better Data, Better Government’

A major milestone for the implementation team—which includes some OMB data specialists and some open-source contractors—was its release this April of version 1.0 of its DATA Act Information Model Schema following months of agency and public comment on drafts. Available on the public federal spending transparency website, it lays out 400 data elements and defines them, gives agencies the formats with which to submit their spending data and the reporting timeframes. And it offers that material in visual and machine-readable formats.

Ho considers this a turning point in the multi-agency bid to fulfill the DATA Act’s goals of “better data, better decisions, better government.” Based on past experience, “You can put a bunch of data out, but that doesn’t mean you’re accomplishing better government,” she said. So her team is creating its role as the government’s digital data broker using a five-pronged approach:

  1. Publish the scheme with its 400 elements in the areas of budget, accounting, procurement, financial and assistance.
  1. Collect data directly from reliable agency sources, an approach Ho calls “data-centric.”
  1. Make data user-centric, so that it meets users’ needs, not what the government thinks they need.  
  1. Use the agile approach to digital design (this is the first such project to go governmentwide). That means continuous building and learning, the practices used by the U.S. Digital Service team in the White House.
  1. Make the process open and transparent, with progress unfolding in two-week “sprints,” after which a “story” is published for comment from agencies, industry and other stakeholders such as transparency groups.

“A better government outcome requires engagement by the public, so we consider it a compliment that our site doesn’t look like a government website,” Ho said.

The power relationships for collecting, validating and standardizing the spending data recognize that “each agency has its own nuances,” Ho said. Rather than take the “waterfall approach” of releasing a slew of requirements at once, they relied on “iterative releases,” followed by feedback from the agencies, then negotiations. “Treasury can say no, telling an agency that ‘you’re the only agency doing it that way,’ ” Ho explained. Or, if an agency’s special approach appears valid, Treasury may adjust its standardization criterion to accommodate it.

The public website for creating the next USAspending.gov, called “open beta,”  showcases the latest “wire frame," or mock-up version, of summary tables that agency data providers can study and respond to with feedback. The Treasury team also has regular meetings and “office hours” to talk to agencies. The general public commenters, albeit a “geeky” slice of the population, Ho acknowledges, are “well informed.” Her team also holds a monthly call with external stakeholders, such as state and local governments and industry.

The beta website offers friendly greetings such as “your voice matters” and “get involved,” and comments can lead to an individual interview. At the end of each two-week sprint, such comments are used to create the next “story” for refinements aimed at better user-centered design.

USAspending.gov is intended to be self-explanatory enough that no user's guide is needed to penetrate, say, an appropriations account summary, Ho noted. Like the consumer website Amazon.com, “we narrow the filters, by program activity, by recipients, by individual state.”

Linking Data to Performance

Unlike the 10-K form corporations submit to the Securities and Exchange Commission—on which the metrics for a firm’s performance are standard—Ho noted that agency program performance data require interpretation. Because “government is not for profit but mission-driven, you must follow the money to the program level to get to the performance question.” One wants to know a program’s output, as in how many school lunches were served, but eventually one wants to know the outcome—did it improve student health?

“We want to engage agencies to make better decisions, not just throw data at them,” Ho added. During the across-the-board cuts from sequestration, for example, “there was a lack of data that could have been used to better prioritize. Not all programs are the same." A chief financial officer “may have access to only a subset of data, but come this May, they will see what data is at their fingertips to advise senior leadership on program effectiveness.”

Ho and her small staff, which she described as “passionate, dedicated and talented,” bring different background perspectives—from Congress, industry and nonprofits such as the Sunlight Foundation. They are “excited about the potential outcomes”—better government and helping drive more innovation in industry. And, assuming agencies deliver all required data, they are confident of meeting the May deadline, Ho said.

Also optimistic is Hudson Hollister, the executive director of the industry Data Coalition who has advised Treasury’s implementation unit. “Will the data they report be perfect? Heavens, no,” he told Government Executive. “Will they report something? Yes. Will we encourage them to keep working on it and encourage good examples? Yes.”

The ultimate value intended by the DATA Act, Ho said, “is the outcome, how the recipients carry out their tasks, whether it’s providing school lunches, safety or housing. For the first time we can connect spending from the appropriation to the actual recipient. When they put that final-format data on in May, people will see “who got the money and how much? And the next question is: What did the taxpayer get out of it?”

An inside-the-government byproduct flagged by Lebryk, who serves on the DATA Act executive steering committee, is that “the DATA Act has resonated deeply in the CFO community. It’s really important in the evolution of functions.” Unlike a traditional control audit statement that reports on past spending, newly standardized digital data will “provide useful information day to day that will enhance the CFO’s role and value to decision makers.” That’s how Lebryk made the business case for the DATA Act, and the community embraced it, he said.

Will the two years of steady effort continue apace under the incoming Trump administration? Lebryk, a career Treasury official with 28 years’ experience, notes that he has been through many transitions. “My sense is that data transparency and how spending happens is important to any administration, so our work will serve as a foundation,” he said. Incumbent Treasury Secretary Jack Lew “gave instructions to make it smooth, and the way transitions go smoothly is when people understand the importance of the work.” Treasury’s work is “a core function of government,” he added, so he expects embracing the DATA Act “to be equally important to next administration.”

 Image via Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com.