Tag: omb

President Obama’s New E.O.: Open Data, Not Government Transparency

There’s a powerful irony lurking underneath the executive order and OMB memorandum on open data that the White House released in tandem today: We don’t have data that tells us what agencies will carry out these policies.

It’s nice that the federal government will work more assiduously to make available the data it collects and creates. And what President Obama’s executive order says is true: “making information resources easy to find, accessible, and usable can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery that improves Americans’ lives and contributes significantly to job creation.” GPS and weather data are the premier examples.

But government transparency was the crux of the president’s 2008 campaign promises, and it is still the rightful expectation of the public. Government transparency is not produced by making interesting data sets available. It’s produced by publishing data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results.

Today’s releases make few, if any, nods to that priority. They don’t go to the heart of transparency, but threaten to draw attention away from the fact that basic data about our government, including things as fundamental as the organization of the executive branch of government, are not available as open data.

Yes, there is still no machine-readable government organization chart. This was one of the glaring faults we found when we graded the publication practices of Congress and the executive branch last year, and this fault remains. The coders who may sift through data published by various agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects can’t sift through data reflecting what those organizational units of government are.

Compare today’s policy announcements to events coming up on Capitol Hill in the next two weeks.

On Thursday next week (May 16), the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will host a “DATA Demonstration Day” to illustrate to Congress and the media how technology may cut waste and improve oversight if federal spending data is structured and transparent. (That would include my hobby-horse, the machine-readable federal government organization chart.) We’ll be there demo-ing how we add data to the bills Congress publishes.

On May 22nd, the House Administration Committee is hosting its 2013 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. This is an event at which various service providers to the House will announce not just policies, but recent, new, and upcoming improvements in publication of data about the House and its deliberations. (We’ll be there, too.)

The administration’s open data announcements are entirely welcome. Some good may come from these policies, and they certainly do no harm (barring procurement boondoggles–which, alas, is a major caveat). But I hope this won’t distract from the effort to produce government transparency, which I view as quite different from the subject of the new executive order and memorandum. The House of Representatives still seems to be moving forward on government transparency with more alacrity.

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.

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?

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?

There’s No Machine-Readable Government Org Chart

At a recent Cato event on transparency, I emphasized that there is no federal government “organization chart” published in a way computers can use.

Here’s what I mean:

Appendix C of the Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-11 is the White House’s definitive public listing of agencies and bureaus, along with their OMB and Treasury codes—unique identifiers for the agencies and bureaus of the federal government.

First problem: It’s a PDF document. To be computer-usable this should be represented in digital form as a lookup table.

But beyond that, it doesn’t follow a coherent organization. There’s an agency code (“200”) called “Other Defense Civil Programs,” for example. There’s obviously no agency called “Other Defense Civil Programs.” That’s a catch-all description, not an agency.

With most agencies, the bureau codes refer to bureaus, such as the Bureau of Land Management (bureau code: “04”) in the Department of the Interior (agency code: “010”), but with respect to the Department of Defense (agency code: “007”), the bureau codes become functional descriptions such as “Military Personnel” (“05”). There is no bureau in the Department of Defense called “Military Personnel.”

Even the most basic organizational information is a hash, and it’s published in PDF, unusable for computer-assisted oversight of the government!

The House appears committed to improving its publication practices. If the administration wants to advance the ball on transparency for its part, it will begin to publish coherent information—starting with basic information about the organization of the executive branch—in machine-readable form, using standardized identifiers. An edict from OMB to harmonize on identifiers down to the program level could be implemented in months, if not weeks.

My recent paper “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” talks about what to do. Our data model for budgeting, appropriating, and spending articulates how government agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects—and the relationships among them—should be represented.

A Remembrance of William Niskanen

I first met Bill when I went to the Council of Economic Advisers in mid-1982. Bill had come to the CEA in the spring of 1981 as one of the early appointees of the incoming Reagan administration. He had known the president and worked with him when he was governor of California.

Bill and I quickly became good friends. Whenever we were both in Washington, we would usually start the day with 20 minutes of chewing over what was going on in the economy and in public policy. Part of the bond that developed between us was a consequence of the unrelenting infighting within the administration. The infighting sometimes involved the CEA but Bill and I, most of the time, were able to stand clear and remain in neutral territory.

Of course, Bill understood how bureaucracies work, or failed to work, from both his research and his experience at Rand, Ford, OMB and, yes, at UCLA and Berkeley. His insights were a staple of our conversations both at the CEA and later. Very few scholars have such first-hand experience in these various sectors of the economy. That fact often shows in the work of academics who have policy ideas that are simply untenable in the context of how organizations and the political system actually work.

A wonderful sense of humor lubricated Bill’s interactions with others. Well, most of the time anyway. During the administration’s work that culminated in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Bill cracked along the way that the Treasury proposal was one that Walter Mondale would be proud of. I had left the CEA and returned to Brown University by that time, but Bill’s crack so angered Treasury Secretary Don Regan (who was not renowned for a sense of humor) that Regan vetoed Bill’s path to become chairman of the CEA. He served as acting chairman for a short time and then joined Cato.

Bill was the most widely read person I have known. That, plus the breadth of his personal experience, made him a delightful conversationalist on almost any topic in almost any group.

Although it was a big loss to the Reagan administration for Bill to depart, it was a huge gain for Cato and for the nation for him to join Cato. His leadership there, working closely with Ed Crane, built Cato to what it is today—the premier libertarian think tank in the world. Bill’s scholarly work will influence future generations; so also, in equal or greater measure, will the Cato Institute that he helped to build.

Federal Spending Hits $4.1 Trillion

If you looked at the new CBO report on the budget, you may have noticed that federal spending this year will be $3.6 trillion.

In fact, federal spending this year will top $4 trillion. But virtually all reporters and budget wonks (including me) routinely use the lower number when discussing total federal spending. I don’t think the higher $4 trillion number even appears anywhere in the CBO report.

The $3.6 trillion figure is “net” outlays. But “gross” outlays, or total spending, is quite a bit higher. The difference is caused by “offsetting collections” and “offsetting receipts.” These are revenue inflows to the government that are netted against spending at the program level, agency level, or government-wide level. Some examples are national park fees, Medicare premiums, and royalties earned on mineral deposits. There are hundreds of these cash inflows to the government that offset reported spending.

Details on these revenue offsets can be found in Chapter 16 of OMB’s Analytical Perspectives (pdf). In fiscal year 2010, net federal outlays were $3.456 trillion, but gross outlays were $4.057 trillion. Thus, gross outlays were 17 percent larger than widely reported net outlays.

In FY 2011, OMB expects gross outlays to be about 15 percent larger than net outlays. Thus, gross outlays this year will be $4.1 trillion, compared to net outlays of $3.6 trillion. As a share of GDP, gross outlays will be about 27.3 percent of GDP, compared to net outlays of 23.8 percent.

Accounting for offsets in this manner is a long-standing convention, but it is one of the sneaky ways that Washington tries to hide its large intrusion into the economy. Certainly, the CBO and OMB should include more prominent presentations of gross outlays in their regular budget updates.

For citizens and reporters, a rule-of-thumb to remember is that total federal spending is 3 to 4 percentage points of GDP larger than usually reported by officials.