OPEN Government Data Act moves to Senate floor after markup

By: Jonathan Haggerty 

Legislation requiring federal agencies to publish their data online in a searchable, nonproprietary, machine-readable format has been cleared for the Senate following a May 17 markup by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, S. 760, the Open Public Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act is identical to an earlier Schatz bill that passed the Senate unanimously last year after analysis by the Congressional Budget Office determined it wouldn’t cost taxpayers any money.

What it would do is modernize government agencies and increase their effectiveness, while also allowing taxpayers to see how their money is spent. For these reasons, R Street joined more than 80 organizations—including trade groups, businesses and other civil-society organizations—in urging the Senate committee to pass these badly needed reforms.

The status quo makes it difficult for engaged citizens to view the spending data of the agencies they fund. A taxpayer interested in viewing the companies and organizations that receive federal grants and contract awards would need to have a license for the proprietary Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS). Dun & Bradstreet Inc., the company that owns DUNS, functions as a monopoly with respect to government contractor data.

In a 2012 report, the GAO claimed the costs of moving away from DUNS to a different system would be too great, but that was in a time of fewer alternatives. More recently, a Government Accountability Services 18F technology team study showed that government agencies across the world are beginning to use a 20-digit code called the Legal Entity Identifier (LEI). LEI is free for organizations and companies to use, as it is managed by the Global LEI Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Switzerland. It would require no expensive upgrades.

Both the current and previous administrations have publicly supported transparency reforms for federal agencies. President Barack Obama introduced an Open Data Policy in 2013, and Matt Lira, a special assistant to President Donald Trump for innovation policy and initiatives, told an audience in April that financial transparency is still a priority for the White House.

Vested interested likely will still oppose the bill, which also has companion legislation, H.R. 1770, in the U.S. House. But given that it has support from both parties—an incredibly rare thing these days—as well as from the present and prior administrations, transparency advocates have room for optimism. The case for nonproprietary data standards and government transparency will now be in the hands of Congress.