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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

The open, efficient, machine-readable government

When a retired billionaire with good intentions and time on his hands spends $10 million on a website to make government performance data comprehensible to the public, people take notice.  When compliance with a law would enable development of such services for far less money, nobody (besides the Government Accountability Office) seems to pay much attention.

As noted on the USAFacts site, funded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, its main goal  is to report the outcomes of public expenditures.  That will become much easier when agencies comply with section 10 of the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRAMA), which requires them to publish their performance reports in machine-readable format like Strategy Markup Language (StratML, ISO 17469-1 and ANSI/AIIM 22:2017).

In the meantime, Alex Howard of the Sunlight Foundation noted Ballmer’s project seems disconnected from open government data projects -- such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and the Data.gov, USASpending, and Performance.gov sites -- and shows no apparent awareness of the upcoming publication of financial information required by the Data Act.  However, for government policymakers the more relevant issue is why agencies have not made more progress complying with law and policy designed to facilitate reuse of public data so that sites and services like USAFacts don’t cost so much to develop and support.

Hudson Hollister of the Data Coalition has suggested the cost of the USAFacts site is roughly equivalent to what agencies have spent transforming government information into open formats.  It is noteworthy, however, that neither the data on the Peformance.gov site nor the OGP national action plans are being published in open, standard, machine-readable format (read here for the distinction between digitization and machine readability).  They are obvious candidates to demonstrate leadership by example in support of President Barack Obama’s directive establishing machine-readability as the default for government information, as well as the Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-130, which directs agencies to use open data standards whenever possible.

Moreover, a key point made by government public engagement specialists is that many agencies fail to give sufficient thought to who needs their services, a shortcoming inconsistent with the E-Government Act of 2002 (eGov Act), which requires agencies to:

  • Work together to link their performance goals to key groups and
  • Adopt open standards enabling the organization and categorization of information in a way that is searchable electronically and interoperable across agencies.

Failure to comply with those provisions of the law has resulted in the proliferation of data stovepipe performance reporting “dashboards” across government.  Meanwhile, the George W. Bush administration’s ExpectMore.gov site was retired and replaced with the Performance.gov site, which is itself now being reengineered, meaning that performance data cannot be efficiently and effectively tracked across the changing political administrations.

Commenting on the need for public engagement, Dan Chenok of IBM’s Center for the Business of Government noted agencies cannot deliver on their missions without input and feedback from stakeholders.  When agencies comply with GPRAMA, vendors, media outlets and service providers -- like IBM, USAFacts, DataUSA, FCW, GCN and many others -- will be empowered to enable citizens to engage far more efficiently in support of public objectives than ever before possible.

For example, neither President Donald Trump's executive order on government reorganization nor his memo establishing the Office of American Innovation can be effectively implemented without both agency performance data as well as widespread participation by the public.  Indeed, implementation of section 10 of GPRAMA is a key performance indicator for the president’s entire management agenda. Without such data, government simply cannot be effectively managed.

Compliance with the eGov Act will occur naturally as a by-product of publishing agency performance plans in StratML format, with the stakeholders of each objective clearly identified.  Given such data, value-added service providers can finally show what President George W. Bush’s top management priority -- citizen-centricity -- truly means in actual practice.  Additionally, it will give real meaning to President Obama’s rhetorical and policy commitments to openness, transparency and participation facilitated by machine-readable data.  It will also provide renewed emphasis to the thrust of Vice President Al Gore’s effort to create a government that “costs less and works better.”

When better performance data is readily available in standardized machine-readable format, no “lip reading” of presidential tax pledges will be required.  Perhaps it might even be possible to reduce the contemporary “malaise” borne on political polarization, by redirecting focus away from populist rhetoric and toward evidence of what actually works and who is best equipped to carry out agency missions.  The news media can help by becoming less obsessed with words, opinions and self-serving storytelling and more attuned to data, reliable records and good business practices.

According to a report by the McKinsey Center for Government, governments could save as much as $3.5 trillion annually within the next five years by improving efficiency and effectiveness -- a sum equal to the entire global fiscal gap.  To achieve such savings agencies must adopt best practices not only from the private sector but also other government agencies around the world.  One such practice is publishing information in open, standard, machine-readable format. The StratML standard is particularly relevant to McKinsey’s finding that a primary problem with government performance is failure to apply outcome-based management practices.

When agencies comply with the provision of GPRAMA requiring them to report how tax expenditures support their objectives, the tax reform debate can be conducted on a more rational, less politically charged basis.  Efforts like Charity Navigator’s 3.0 initiative, focusing on results, will be served as well --  thereby facilitating the formation of public/private partnerships in support of public objectives.

Following the money can take us only so far.  Funding is an input.  What matters are outcomes.

Eventually, as implied by Executive Order 13642, all public records should be readily available in open, standard, machine-readable formats.  However, since all records should be aligned with the objectives they support, strategic plans are a logical set of records with which to start, even if there were not a law requiring as much.  Moreover, since GPRAMA requires agencies to update their plans by February 2018, that would be a great time to publish them in StratML format.

Doing so will begin to restore trust in ability of government to uphold the law in service to the public.

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Reader Comments

Sun, May 14, 2017 Charles Assaf Cape Town

Owen, Thanks for a great and informative article. This shows that with cooperation (mind you, it's not quite there yet), usage of machine readable data formats, such as StratML, can not only make government reporting of data more consistent, but more accessible by more people and machines. We're at the dawn of an era of a truly interconnected world of public and private information. While the usage of a standard format is ideal, the fact that there are machine readable formats coming into use greatly simplifies the task of unifying information, such that translations from one format to another can obviate the need to use a single standard (hey, it's not perfect, but it is real progress). As usage and awareness of this capability becomes more widespread, the differences between standards and homegrown solutions will narrow as consumers of this information will demand more interoperability with other sources of information, leading to an evolutionary path gradually drawing them even nearer to each other.

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