Tag: DATA Act

Let’s See What DATA Can Do

The New York Times reported at the top of page one yesterday on the $4.1 million in payments that a single physical therapist in Brooklyn got from Medicare in 2012. It’s a shocking sum, and Medicare fraud is common in both physical therapy and the Brooklyn area. The therapist who received the money says that the billings are for his large, multi-office practice.

The point is broader: Reporters, medical trade association figures, investigators and researchers are poring over newly released data about Medicare spending. They’re strengthening public oversight and the public’s capacity to question this government program. It’s data that the American Medical Association and other industry groups fought against releasing. There is risk that the numbers will lead some to unfair conclusions, perhaps even in the case of this Brooklyn physical therapist, but the public oversight it brings to the Medicare program and the circumspection it brings to fraudsters and others will be more than worth it. Data is a powerful oversight tool.

That’s why I think it’s good news that the House of Representatives passed the DATA Act yesterday. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, introduced by Mark Warner (D-VA) in the Senate and Darrell Issa (R-CA) in the House, requires the federal government to adopt data standards for all federal spending and publish all of it online. This will permit the public to gather insights like the ones in that New York Times story across the vastness of the federal spending enterprise. It will make the diffuse cost of government a little more acute in the minds of many, positioning Americans to say specifically which spending should stop.

Change will not come instantly, and the legislation is not self-executing, but groups like the Data Transparency Coalition, a prime mover behind the legislation, appear poised to insist on full execution of the law. Implementation should not have the cost that the Congressional Budget Office estimated for it, and if it does, the billions saved thanks to availability of information to the public should justify the costs. If another “cost” of transparency is improvement of federal programs that should be eliminated, I think that beats the today’s status quo of having them on the books and failing.

The DATA Act is not a direct response to a 2008 Cato event asking the Obama administration to “Just Give Us the Data.” Indeed, the administration has been conspicuously unsupportive of transparency in this area, though transparency was a key campaign theme in President Obama’s first election. Cato studies in this area since then include “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” and “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.” We’ll be repeating the grading study during the summer, though it’s doubtful the administration’s grades will improve by that time. We will use the data structures that the DATA Act requires in our Deepbills project, which shines light on Congress’s proposals, including its plans for spending.

Obama Administration Seeks to Head Off Spending Transparency

Congratulations to Cato’s media staff who worked though the night last night to produce an excellent Cato response to the State of the Union speech. It’s a lot of work, and they make it look easy.

At minute 10:00, my appearance in the video pivots from NSA spying and secrecy to a transparency issue that is just as important to the long-term maintenance of freedom in our country. It’s an issue you might not have heard about.

Leaked documents revealed this week that President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget is seeking to gut spending transparency legislation that is making its way through Congress. The DATA Act is intended to transform the U.S. government’s spending information from inaccessible documents buried in the executive branch into open data, available for the public to use. The House has passed one version. A Senate committee has forwarded another version of the bill to the floor.

OMB’s Laggard Transparency Record

On Monday, I wrote about the rapidly growing movement to replace the Office of Management and Budget with a different coordinator for standardized publication of government spending data. Why? Because the OMB hasn’t been standardizing and publishing data about government spending. That’s why.

Yesterday, Kaitlin Lee posted a three-part indictment of the OMB on the Sunlight Foundation blog, called “OMB’s Commitment to Data Quality: Too Little, Too Late.” Lee is deeply knowledgeable in this area and extraordinarily patient with the data problems the government throws at her. Credit what you read in her blog post.

(See also the Data Transparency Coalition’s rebuttal of OMB controller Danny Werfel, who appears to be guiding the Obama administration toward opposition to spending data transparency.)

The drumbeat for better data is growing louder, it’s pan-ideological, and it’s non-partisan. Will the OMB preempt the DATA Act by moving forward with real data reforms, or will Congress preempt the OMB’s role?

The DATA Act and Cato’s Transparency Work

In his final “Chairman’s Corner” blog post as head of the White House’s Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board, Earl Devaney highlights the need for orderly publication of data about government spending.

There is bi-partisan legislation now in the Congress—it’s called the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act—that could accomplish this mission. But the reform bill faces an uphill battle, primarily because some in the bureaucracy prefer the status quo—a hodgepodge of data collection and display sites that, frankly, makes no sense at all unless you believe your government should confuse you.

The DATA Act would establish an independent board within the executive branch to track federal spending, and it would require federal agencies and recipients of federal funds to comply with reporting requirements set up by the board.

The board would “designate common data elements, such as codes, identifiers, and fields, for information required to be reported by recipients or agencies” (section 102 of the reported version, adding a new §3611 to title 31 of the U.S. code). The bill’s author, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), spoke at our September Capitol Hill briefing, rolling out our legislative data model.

On Wednesday, another Cato Capitol Hill briefing highlighted the results of our work the last few months to model federal budgeting, appropriating, and spending. Should the DATA Act become law, the model we’ve been working on can illuminate the work of the proposed board. Use of our model will help ensure that the structure of government spending data supports public oversight use cases.

I don’t know that there needs to be a board—certainly not a permanent one. The bill authorizes more money than I think is required for the board, and the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate for implementing the requirements of the DATA Act seems wildly high. But the dynamics set in motion by making government spending more transparent may well reduce government spending by well more than even these high estimated costs.