Tag: Danny Werfel

Why Have a Machine-Readable Federal Government Organization Chart?

When I write and talk about getting better data about the federal government, its activities, and spending, I mostly have in mind strengthening public oversight by bringing computers to bear on the problem. You don’t have to know much about transparency, organizational management, or computing to understand that having a machine-readable government organization chart is an important start.

There should be a list, that computers can process, showing what agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects exist in the federal government and how they are related. Then budgets, bills in Congress, spending programs and actual outlays, regulations, guidance documents, and much more could be automatically tied to the federal organizational units affected and involved.

But it’s not only public oversight that would benefit from such a list.

Mike Riggs at Reason magazine has found that the Office of Management and Budget’s sequestration report issued last September listed a cut to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s budget even though the NDIC went out of business last June.

The first line item on page 121 of the OMB’s September 2012 report says that under sequestration the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. While that’s slightly more than 8.2 percent (rounding error or scare tactic?), the bigger problem is that the National Drug Intelligence Center shuttered its doors on June 15, 2012–three months before the OMB issued its report to Congress.

That’s embarrassing for the administration, as it should be. Riggs asks, “Might there be other errors in the OMB’s report?”

Getting organized is not just about public oversight. Another reason to have a machine-readable federal government organization chart is to improve internal management and controls. This kind of mistake should be nearly impossible. People at OMB should be able to download the list of government entities at any time, day or night, and be sure that it is the correct listing that uniquely identifies and distinguishes all the organizational units of the federal government at that moment. We should be able to download it, too.

Unfortunately, OMB controller Danny Werfel has been riding the brake on transparency. He and the Obama administration as a whole should be stepping on the gas. In early February, the Sunlight Foundation found that more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending for fiscal year 2011 was misreported on USASpending.gov.

On Transparent Data: Use It or Lose It, OMB

At a recent event on “lessons learned” from the Recovery Act, Earl Devaney, who served as chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, talked about the “crying need for data standardization in government.” (35:00) Good data wouldn’t only help expose waste, fraud, and abuse. It would help prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

“There was so much sunlight on [Recovery Act] money,” he said, “that the bad guys just sort of said to themselves, ‘Well, we’ll just continue to steal Medicare money…’.” (38:25) That’s entertaining stuff.

But the really interesting comments came from Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Management and Budget. He criticized the DATA Act, which would create an independent commission to standardize federal spending data. (40:30) “Slammed” it, according to Federal Computer Week.

The OMB has effective and transparent processes in place to create rules for agencies to follow in obligating and spending funds, Werfel said, and it has a history of working with agencies to do so. A new commission would add “a new layer of regulation.” Why would we not “leverage the existing instruments of government”?

Here’s why: The OMB still has not produced a machine-readable organization chart for the federal government. There is still no authoritative and reliable set of identifiers computers can use to identify even the top two layers of the federal bureaucracy: agencies and bureaus.

If the OMB can’t do this utterly basic stuff, if it can’t come up with standard identifiers for the programs underneath agencies and bureaus, and if it can’t create a uniform process for identifying and tracking awards and outlays of taxpayer dollars, there may not be as much there to “leverage” as we thought.

President Obama came into office promising great strides in transparency. By the end of his third year in office, he complied with his Sunlight Before Signing campaign promise just 52.4% of the time. President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget publishes the government’s top-level organization chart in a disorderly PDF document.

Why wouldn’t the public go looking for a replacement?