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Photo: White House Flickr

(Photo: White House Flickr)

The Office of Management and Budget has called for key changes to a piece of milestone transparency legislation, but those close to the issue say the story may be more about how OMB’s take on the bill compares with the administration’s open data policy.

“OMB’s position is in contradiction to the president’s stance on using open data to make government transparent and accountable and undermines landmark legislation that promotes federal spending transparency,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The landmark legislation is referring to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which passed the House in November, and focuses on standardizing and publishing federal spending data.

“Federal spending data, if it were standardized and published, has so much potential to create new industries and new jobs,” said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition. “If OMB’s revisions succeed, then federal spending data will not become that public resource, and the opportunity will be lost.”

OMB’s edits are in response to Sen. Mark Warner’s attempt to pass the bill unanimously in the Senate. What Warner is attempting to pass in the Senate includes an offset, or the total cost of the bill — which requires all members of Congress to sign off on it. However, according to Hollister, the Treasury Department first needs to sign off on it, which is where the holdup started.

The Treasury Department was informed by OMB not to sign off on the bill. OMB then provided edits if Warner wanted approval for unanimous consent, according to Hollister.

“The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act,” Warner said in an emailed statement to FedScoop. “DATA reflects years of bipartisan, bicameral work, and to propose substantial, unproductive changes this late in the game is unacceptable.”

Warner is referring to the open data executive order that came out in May 2013, which requires all agencies to make their data both useful and publicly available. The administration’s support of transparency and data-driven innovation have also been championed by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel.

“The administration believes data transparency is a critical element to good government, and we share the goal of advancing transparency and accountability of Federal spending,” Frank Benenati, spokesman at OMB, told FedScoop in an email. “We will continue to work with Congress and other stakeholders to identify the most effective [and] efficient use of taxpayer dollars to accomplish this goal.”

A significant change between the original and the revised bill is the language around governmentwide data standards. The new language directs OMB to “review, and if necessary, revise standards to ensure accuracy and consistency through methods such as establishing linkages between data in agency financial systems and information.” According to Hollister, the qualifier “if necessary” in the new provision doesn’t actually require anyone to do anything.

OMB’s revisions, according to the Data Transparency Coalition, go against recommendations released by the president’s Government Accountability and Transparency Board.

“After OMB’s revisions, the DATA Act no longer compels the government to adopt common identifiers for grants, contracts, grantees, and contractors, which means the infrastructure recommended by President Obama’s GATB will not be built,” the coalition said on its website.

OMB’s markup also does not require agencies to report data to usaspending.gov using encoded data standards, as originally stated in the bill. In addition, agencies will have to report data quarterly instead of every month.

“OMB’s proposed revisions would nullify the bill’s main purpose to standardize and publish government data, contrary to the clear consensus that has brought together both parties, both chambers, and advocacy groups across the political spectrum,” Hollister said in a statement. We cannot support the DATA Act if it becomes a dead letter.”

However, this is not the end of the road for the DATA Act; senators still can negotiate with OMB, and Hollister said it is not too late for the White House to change its position.

Warner is equally focused.

“We look forward to passing the DATA Act, which had near universal support in its House passage and passed unanimously out of its Senate Committee,” Warner told FedScoop. “I will not back down from a bill that holds the government accountable and provides taxpayers the transparency they deserve.”

Scott Maucione contributed to this report.