IRS Opens Up Form 990 Data, Ushering Nonprofit Sector into the Age of Transparency

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Making meaningful improvements to how the federal government uses the internet can take years, new laws, regulations, demonstration projects, testimony and dogged persistence by public interest advocates and reformers in the pursuit of change. Then, all at once, a dam breaks and a new resource blossoms into a commons online. June 15, 2016 was such a day, when the IRS has begun publishing electronic nonprofit tax returns online in a machine-readable format on Amazon Web Services.

Sunlight has long held that nonprofit e-file data should be open. Now it is.

“This is a huge victory for the IRS,” open government advocate Carl Malamud said in an email. “The service stepped up to the plate and has squarely faced the issue of privacy breaches in public nonprofit returns and are now releasing machine-processable XML data for those returns. This is a huge release: 1.4 million e-file returns dating back to 2011 available for free and a commitment to update the data store on a monthly basis.”

Over the past decade, however, the IRS has not embraced publishing the tax returns of charities — called Form 990s — as open data with joy and enthusiasm, despite the clear value of opening the $1.6 trillion nonprofit sector to transparency and innovation. In fact, Malamud had to win a federal lawsuit to get the tax agency to do what it should have been doing anyway.

After a federal court ordered the IRS to disclose Form 990s as open data in 2015, however, the agency subsequently announced that it would begin working to release all of the data from electronically filed nonprofit tax returns available in a machine-readable format online by early 2016.

In the months since, the agency has worked diligently to ensure that the privacy issues Malamud had found in the millions of files the IRS disclosed to Public.Resource.org. As of June 2016, the public can now access Form 990 data on Amazon Web Services for free. Notably, the datasets are hosted in Amazon’s public cloud instead of IRS.gov, offloading demand to a private sector company that’s become a global leader in hosting apps, services and data.

It’s also worth noting that this release also fulfills an element of one of the commitments in the third U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government, modernizing administration of the Freedom of Information Act, to “Proactively Release Nonprofit Tax Filings.”

Tax filings for nonprofit organizations contain data that is legally required to be publicly released. Accessing the filings generally requires a request from the public, which can include a FOIA request, and results in more than 40 million pages provided in a non-machine-readable format. The Internal Revenue Service will launch a new process that will remove personally identifiable information before releasing the public information within electronically filed nonprofit tax filings. The electronically filed tax filings will be released as open, machine- readable data, allowing the public to review the finances and other information of more than 340,000 American nonprofit and charitable organizations.

In our correspondence, Malamud hailed the work of many others to bring this moment to pass, from professor Beth Noveck, the former director of the White House Open Government Initiative who co-authored “Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data,” to the pro bono work of Thomas R. Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine on the FOIA lawsuit, to the work of Scott Klein’s team on ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer and the Internet Archive.

“Nonprofit tax returns contain tremendous amounts of information about the activities of this important sector of our economy,” Noveck said via email. She continued:

With the raw data of nonprofit tax returns, it will become possible, for example, to see who is providing social services to whom and where and more easily spot the overlaps and gaps so that government and the social sector know where more investment is needed. It will become possible to build the tools to spot waste, fraud and abuse more easily than we can today. There’s rich and useful information, which can be visualized to help donors know more about where to give. When the sector itself has better business intelligence about its own activities, it can operate more effectively.

Many thanks to everyone who has collaborated to help bring the IRS further into the 21st century, not least the staff at the agency who we need to be trustworthy stewards of our private data. Protecting privacy when releasing open data is essential, and we commend the nation’s tax collector and regulator for its due diligence.

This is far from the first time Malamud’s determined efforts has led to a watershed in useful government data going online. Back in 1993, he used a grant from the National Science Foundation to obtain and publish Securities and Exchange Commission data online. In 1995, the SEC decided to publish the data itself. Two decades later, Malamud spent years buying, processing and publishing millions of nonprofit tax filings, converting scanned images and then making the bulk data available to the public.

“This is exactly analogous to the SEC and the EDGAR database,” Malamud said in an phone interview in 2013. “If you make the data available, you will get innovation.”

I expect that to be the case, given the track record of his predictions. For instance, journalists, auditors and congressional investigators will now be able to analyze the data to look for trends and patterns, finding and flagging issues. It’s also going to empower officials and watchdogs to track and reveal influence in the nonprofit world.

“This is useful information to track nonprofits,” Malamud said. “A state attorney general could just search for all executives that received loans from their employer.

More broadly, opening Form 990 data will not only improve how services like Guidestar and Charity Navigator work, but also provide the public with more equitable access and insight insight into how well their donations are being spent.

“My hope is that this will enable us to grow the nonprofit sector by enabling people to target their donations, to help the sector know better whom to serve and how, and, ultimately, to help the people who are the recipients of the good works of those in nonprofit organizations,” said Noveck.


CC-BY-SAThis work by Sunlight Foundation, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Congress is Back from Easter break!

— by Rachna Choudhry — Co-founder, POPVOX.com

todaycongresssketchThe House returns for an early appropriations season — the earliest since at least 1974. Meanwhile, the Senate will consider raising the minimum wage. Here’s the scoop from our Hill Sources:

Appropriations Season Begins!
The annual appropriations process begins this week in the House, as they consider the first two 2015 spending bills. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) has set a goal to have the House pass all of the 12 annual spending bills for FY 2015 before the August recess to avoid another omnibus measure after Sept. 30. (To put it in perspective, the first appropriations bill last year didn’t hit the House floor until June.)

  • Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2015 (HR 4486): Provides $71.5 billion in discretionary funding – a cut of $1.8 billion below the FY 2014 level. This reduction will not negatively affect projects or services on which troops and veterans rely. Instead, the bill provides less funding than the previous year for military construction, largely due to a lack of new need for such projects, while increasing funding for veterans programs by $1.5 billion.
  • Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, 2015 (HR 4487): Provides annual funding for the offices of Members of the House of Representatives, the support agencies of Congress (including security), services for visitors, and Capitol operations and maintenance. The total included for the House and joint operations, excluding Senate-only items, is $3.3 billion. This is the same as the FY 2014 level, and it’s $122.5 million below the President’s request. Also includes a provision preventing any pay increases for Members of Congress in FY 2015, which has been in place since 2010.

Government Reporting

The House will consider two bills related to government reporting:

  • Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) (S 994): Requires standardized reporting of federal spending to be posted to a single website, allowing people to track spending in their communities. (This version passed the Senate on April 10, and the House had passed its version on Nov. 18, and is expected to pass the Senate version and send it to the President for his signature.)
  • Government Reports Elimination Act (HR 4194): Would eliminate or modify 321 legislatively mandated reports from 29 Federal agencies.

Increasing the Minimum Wage  

After completing work on nominations, the Senate could begin considering a bill to raise the minimum wage this week:

  • Minimum Wage Fairness Act (S 1737): Would provide for an increase in the Federal minimum wage in three stages: $8.20 an hour six months after the bill is enacted, $9.15 an hour a year after enactment and to $10.10 an hour two years after enactment. Would also increase the wage of tipped workers to $3.00 six months after the bill is enacted, and then up to 70% of the minumum wage for other workers.

Democrats see raising the minimum wage as an important issue, particularly during an election year. However, Republicans opposing the bill point to a February Congressional Budget Office study, which found that “once fully implemented in the second half of 2016, the $10.10 option would reduce total employment by about 500,000 workers, or 0.3 percent.” The study also found that the policy would lift 900,000 people out of poverty.

Another Obamacare Fix

The House will yet again consider amending the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. But this time, it has bipartisan support:

  • Expatriate Health Coverage Clarification Act (HR 4414): This bipartisan legislation was introduced as a fix to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that would exempt plans from the law’s requirements when they sell policies to individuals who work outside of the United States.  However, some Democrats believe that this bill creates large loopholes that would permit insurance companies to sell inferior insurance policies to American and foreign workers and their families who live in the United States.

The House previously considered this bill on April 9, under suspension of the rules, which required two-thirds of the House to support the bill for passage. However, the bill did not garner two-thirds support and failed by a roll call vote (259 – 159). This time, it will need only a simple majority to pass.

Also in the House… 

The House will also vote on:

  • HR 4192: Allows construction of single-story penthouses of up to 20 feet above the roof level in the District of Columbia.
  • HR 298: Would conduct a special resource study to evaluate the significance of the Mill Springs Battlefield located in Pulaski and Wayne Counties, Kentucky, and the feasibility of its inclusion in the National Park System.
  • North Texas Invasive Species Barrier Act (HR 4032): To exempt from Lacey Act Amendments of 1981 certain water transfers by the North Texas Municipal Water District and the Greater Texoma Utility Authority.
  • Huna Tlingit Traditional Gull Egg Use Act (HR 3110): To allow for the harvest of gull eggs by the Huna Tlingit people within Glacier Bay National Park in the State of Alaska.
  • New Philadelphia Study Act (HR 930): To conduct a special resource study of the archeological site and surrounding land of the New Philadelphia town site in the State of Illinois.
  • Law Enforcement Museum Act (HR 4120): To amend the National Law Enforcement Museum Act to extend the termination date.
  • Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument Preservation Act (HR 1501): To direct the Secretary of the Interior to study the suitability and feasibility of designating the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, as a unit of the National Park System.
  • National Park Service 100th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act (HR 627): To provide for the issuance of coins to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service.
  • Restoring Proven Financing for American Employers Act (HR 4167): Amends the Volcker Rule to exclude certain debt securities of collateralized loan obligations from the prohibition against acquiring or retaining an ownership interest in a hedge fund or private equity fund.

 

The Week Ahead in Congress

In the Senate
The Senate has plans to work on at least one bill:

S 3637: Extending a federal guarantee program for banks and credit unions for two years.  According to Hill Sources, the Transaction Account Guarantee (TAG) program was created during the financial crisis of a few years ago, and financial institutions broadly support the extension. 

In the House
On Tuesday, the House will vote on a Motion to go to Conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (HR 4310), along with a Democratic Motion to Instruct Conferees.

The House could work on up to eight suspension bills:

— The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (HR 1974), which would set up a public website that would allow access to various reports mandated by Congress.

— The Eliminate Privacy Notice Confusion Act (HR 5817), which would allow banks to notify customers of data privacy policies only when those policies change.

— The Asthma Inhalers Relief Act (HR 6190), allowing the sale of all remaining Primatene Mist asthma inhalers, which were banned for sale due to environmental concerns.

— The Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act (HR 6364), establishes a commission to ensure a suitable observance of the centennial of World War I, to designate memorials to the service of members of the United States Armed Forces in World War I, including a National World War I Memorial on the National Mall in the District of Columbia.

— The D.C. Courts and Public Defender Service Act (S 1379), amending the administrative authorities of the DC courts.

— The DART Act (S 1998)
, to improve management of the Department of Homeland Security.

— The GAO Mandates Revision Act (S 3315), easing reporting requirements of the Government Accountability Office.

— The No-Hassle Flying Act (S 3542), making it easier for airports to clear baggage from overseas.

SSHIX Meeting Squelches Public Comments

Given Gov. Sandoval’s recent statements relative to whether to or not to bebin planning for implementation of NV’s Health Care exchanges, many where looking forward to being able to comment on his stance at Thursday’s Silver State Health Insurance Exchange Board meeting.  Public comments for the support of the ACA and Medicaid Expansion were not allowed or heard by the board.

The SSHIX (Silver State Health Insurance Exchange) Board executive director, opened the meeting with an announcement that, “Discussion of policy and specifically the Medicaid Expansion would not be heard in the meeting – policy would be addressed at a future meeting.” With that said, it pretty much squelched any public comments on support of the ACA and Medicaid Expansion.

Further, it was announced that the August SSHIX Board Meeting has been cancelled, and the rescheduled future date will be announced later. So supporters — stay tuned!

Additionally, it was mentioned on the call by the AG (Attorney General) office that, “The board meeting is not for questions and answers, but comments from the public.” The chair of the board, mentioned that if you have questions, “Please send an email with the question to the board and they will be addressed.” It was also said that questions could be asked at the Consumer Assistance Advisory Committee (CAAC) meetings. FYI, that the next CAAC meeting is Wednesday, July 25th (via Call in, Web Broadcast, and face to face in Carson City and Las Vegas). The petition will be sent to them.

So — road blocks were put up Thursday, and support for the ACA and Medicaid Expansion were not heard; but this was only a reminder that nothing worth having is ever easy — and affordable health care for all in Nevada is definitely worth having.

The only way to take advantage of these opportunities (e.g., making public comments on policy and having your questions and concerns answered by the board) is to be informed, know when these meetings are, and just get involved. NO PROBLEM!

Please email Athena Cox, Executive Assistant, Silver State Health Insurance Exchange,and request to be on the LISTSERVE for the upcoming SSHIX meetings and you will receive an email automatically with the meeting information and agenda. If you have any policy public comments or questions, you can also send them to Athena’s email atacox@exchange.nv.gov and she will forward to the appropriate person. The point is, you can be involved.

So supporters of the Nevadans Support the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion, be not discouraged, and do not be silent. Be involved – stay engaged!!

The Nevadans for the Affordable Care Act petition continues and will continue to be delivered to the governor, state elected officials, and others until the governor makes a decision. As of this writing, the petition count is 2543 – the momentum is growing – but more signatures are needed.

Implementing health care coverage for all is too important and we citizens must not stop now. Let’s keep the petition going — 3,000 signatures and even more, by the end of the week, WE CAN DO IT! Please pass the petition on in support of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion.

Thank you FOR ALL that you do!

Alise & John Davis

HHS’ New Open Government Plan

HHS has released Version 2.0 of the Open Government Plan. The new plan incorporates feedback from the public and guides HHS efforts to be more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.

A number of new projects in the plan will improve the way the department works with the public to solve critical health issues.

Read HHS’ Open Government Plan.

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