A few U.S. congressmen want to make it harder for the federal government to waste millions in taxpayer dollars. "The Goal of the DATA Act is to make the operations of government, particularly the financial operations, more transparent," Senator Mark Warner tells me, about the Senate's passage of the new bill that would finally make the government's spending habits accessible the public.
So, why do we care about this seemingly wonky piece of legislation? What's the realistic impact of making federal spending data accessible in downloadable spreadsheets? To give one example, in 2012, the organization in charge of monitoring federal spending, the General Services Administration, was caught sipping wine in pricey Las Vegas suites at a conference that cost taxpayers $823,000.
The DATA Act would "show that the GSA seems to be an outlier on its conference budget," explains Warner, who hopes that watchdogs could red-flag outrageous government programs.
At present, there's more sunshine in an Alaskan submarine than the federal budget, which often requires case-by-case requests for information. "It's impossible, without months or years of filing Freedom of Information Act requests, to select a particular government contractor and see each payment that contractor received from different agencies and different programs," Zack Pesavento, of the Data Transparency Coalition, says in an email.
If data transparency is so great, why has it taken Congress years to outfit the government with '90s-era spreadsheet technology? In a word: politics. The DATA Act has been held up by bureaucratic wrangling about which agencies would oversee the rules governing transparency.
Eventually, the White House came up with a compromise that fractured oversight for the bill, between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Treasury. While the infighting continues, it will be up to activists to ensure that the default standards applied to transparency allow for easy access to a range of departments and issues.
Seeing as this Congress follows the most unproductive group of representatives in American history, the passage of the Data Act is a good sign that the legislative branch can be innovative.