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The federal government spends about $3.8 trillion a year. Ever wonder where it goes? The passage of 2014’s Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) now requires the government to tell the American public exactly where those dollars end up.
The DATA Act doesn’t just provide transparency for the sake of transparency. Now data is open to a wide variety of analysis and applications—for students, journalists, budget wonks, and more. “It’s the Google of the government,” says U.S. Treasury Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Christina Ho.
But getting there was a huge challenge. A talented team of data scientists and technologists responsible for getting the government’s spending data online had to track money quarterly. They then had to link data from the budget, accounting, procurement, and financial assistance databases into a single format that allowed for comparability across the entire government.
“Thomas Jefferson set the transparency bar high, but for more than two centuries there was no simple way to trace tax dollars back to the agencies spending them.”
More than 215 years ago, Thomas Jefferson told then-Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin he wanted the nation’s finances “as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so anyone could comprehend them, investigate abuses and, consequently, to control them.” He set the transparency bar high, but for more than two centuries there was no simple way to trace tax dollars back to the agencies spending them.
The era of big data, however, means new opportunities to bring our founding father’s vision to life. The challenge facing the U.S. Treasury: How can we bring the data to life in a way that makes it easily accessible and usable to all?
“The DATA Act sets a path for us to do more with our data—in an innovative way that engages external stakeholders. Not just innovating in government, but within the entire ecosystem,” Christina says.
“We used an Agile methodology, so rather than defining a set of rigid requirements up front, we worked with Treasury employees and representatives from more than 25 federal agencies to establish the core functionalities the final product needed to have,” said Drew Leety, Booz Allen’s project manager.
The focus is more on making sure the site offers the functionality it’s supposed to and less on the process that drives how to get there. Some stakeholders were nervous about this approach, accustomed as they are to having all questions answered up front. The second step in the Agile process eased those concerns: We sent developers to the Capitol Visitors’ Center to ask tourists what they thought of the interface. Based on their feedback—what the team called “user acceptance”—programmers adapted the digital environment.
We developed and tested what we dubbed the DATA Act Broker. This TurboTax-style automated wizard helps agency financial officers standardize their spending data and upload it to the cloud for public perusal. We launched the tool in just 6 months.
Throughout the implementation, we helped the U.S. Treasury maintain a level of transparency that’s nearly unheard of in the government IT realm, by using GitHub to share processes and work streams, and our agile project management tool, JIRA, which is publicly accessible. The team also shared their code on code.gov.
Once the data was accessible, it was time to bring the data community together across government and industry. We hosted the DATA Act Hackathon, giving data scientists, developers, and coders access to newly available federal data sets to find ways to better manage federal spending and performance. Participants offered recommendations on resource allocation, budget considerations, and more.
We know how to foster a collaborative environment where creativity and problem solving intersect—through open and objective code reviews, adopting an Agile mindset, and sharing lessons learned. But our work isn’t done.
“The real breakthroughs will only come if citizens go to USASpending.gov and kick the tires,” says Booz Allen’s Bryce Pippert who led our DATA Act work. “The government is a publicly-held trust and we are the shareholders, so we’re asking you to use these new data assets. Without curiosity and use, we won’t see the intended impact and value. We need people to get in there and dig.”
In the fall of 2017, we'll release a new version of USAspending.gov. The new site will continue to provide data on federal awards and will feature agency expenditure information. For a preview, go to beta.usaspending.gov. Please give us feedback about important features you want incorporated into the new site by emailing our service desk or joining the community.
By implementing the DATA Act with radical transparency, Agile workflows, and continuous delivery, we’re giving interested Americans a better understanding of federal spending than they’ve ever had before, and demonstrating that agile development principles can be successfully applied to projects that span nearly the entire government. Read More