Warner ‘cautiously optimistic’ on DATA Act rollout

One of the original backers of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act says he will be a shepherd and watchdog for federal agencies as they work toward full implementation of the law by next May.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told Federal News Radio he wants to see agency updates and a plan to ensure the law’s rollout isn’t lost amid the election season.

“I’m still cautiously optimistic,” Warner said. “We’ve got to make sure we get an update on implementation plans, we’ve got to have a governance structure that includes not just Treasury and [the Office of Management and Budget], but other stakeholders on how the DATA Act will be overseen from one administration to another.”

Warner said he’s also pushing for an inventory of government programs, because no matter how good the data, without that kind of list neither the taxpayers nor federal employees get the benefit of full transparency on government spending.

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“The DATA Act is, I think, one of the most significant transparency pieces of legislation since the Freedom of Information Act,” Warner said. “We all know there’s a great deal of concern about government operations and distrust in government. One of the ways that we can address that is if we have better data, if we can in effect follow the money.”

The Virginia lawmaker spoke with Federal News Radio at his Capitol Hill office about the progress of the DATA Act,  and what he sees for the next 12 months leading up to the implementation deadline.

Being a nudge

In early April, Warner sent a letter to 42 agencies asking for an update on how they were incorporating DATA Act requirements.

Warner said half of the agencies responded to his office, including the Commerce, Education, Justice and State departments, as well as the General Services Administration, Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Small Business Association.

“We’re going to continue to nudge those agencies that have not gotten back to us and we’re going to ask all the agencies for an update of their implementation plans,” Warner said.

He said there were several consistent concerns shared by agencies, including funding and a perceived “slowness” from the Treasury Department and OMB in publishing final guidance for the data schema.

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Treasury and OMB are the agencies spearheading the DATA Act’s roll out. In April Treasury issued its DATA Act Schema Version 1.0. Treasury has been working on these standards for one year. It issued four draft versions and collected hundreds of comments, which helped form the finalized version.

A week later OMB released an additional guidance memorandum reminding agencies what is expected of them by May 2017.

“This is a challenge but it’s really important. While there were some bumps initially between Treasury and OMB, I think you’re seeing the administration take this seriously. I hope they believe it’s one of their legacy items,” Warner said.

Avoiding the cracks

With a new administration taking over in January, Warner said he is also working to ensure the implementation doesn’t fall through the cracks.

He said he is pressing OMB to set up a governance structure before the election, and have it include both stakeholders and “long term government professionals.”

“My staff has been in touch on a regular basis [with Treasury and OMB]. I’m on very good terms with the OMB director. I am a regular nudger of him to keep this project moving forward,” Warner said. “Some of the folks who’ve worked on this project worked with my office in the development of data, so I know there are strong allies inside the administration. The challenge here is, this is one of those kinds of projects that everybody knows there’s long-term value, but if you don’t have specific attention, it’s the kind of thing ‘we can do that next week, next month,’ the can gets kicked along. I want to keep this sense of urgency.”

Warner acknowledged that “good data” saves money in the long term, but there needs to be upfront funding.

The Obama Administration requested $15 million in the fiscal 2017 budget to help with the implementation.

Opportunities for entrepreneurs, IT

As someone who represents a state with a number of government contractors, Warner said he does hear concerns from the contracting community when it comes to the changes associated with the DATA Act.

But Warner said the law will be good for the private sector, especially when it comes to opportunities for small businesses.

“One of the goals I hope that would come out of full implementation of the DATA Act is that it will actually provide more opportunities for smaller, and entrepreneurial women and minority-owned businesses to get a crack at programmatic dollars,” Warner said. “Better data will make that more possible.”

Warner said while not tied directly to the DATA Act, he also hopes an outgrowth of the legislation will be an alternative to the current practice of patching aging IT systems

“When we continue to put patches on legacy IT systems, what we really do is create more vulnerability in terms of cybersecurity,” Warner said. “I think there’s both a value to the tax payer and value to the government and cybersecurity issues about finding ways to replace legacy IT systems.”