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Ten Questions That USASpending.Gov Can’t Answer

1. How many federal dollars are spent in my community?

Problem: USASpending.gov gives limited state-level spending summaries, but there is no data on a more local level. Searching for federal contract and assistance awards by congressional district, one will find an alarming number of “Unknown” congressional districts (and even some districts blatantly lumped together)—unknown districts with billions of dollars of funding over the years make the whole dataset suspect. There are no spending summaries on a county or municipal level.

2. What small businesses in my community are receiving federal dollars?

Problem: While some data on this is available on USASpending.gov, many local businesses and organizations are left out. Only the first two levels of award recipients are reported, prime awardees (e.g., states) and first-tier sub-awardees (e.g., counties and municipalities). Often there are several levels of federal spending allocation, so local businesses can be second or third-tier sub-awardees and thus are left out of reporting.

3. How many jobs were created with federal spending?

Problem: There is no data reflecting end results on USASpending.gov, so this is impossible to determine. Recovery.gov, which tracks spending related to Recovery Act funds, calculates the number of jobs funded.

4. How much fraud is there in federal spending?

Problem: When spending cannot be reliably tracked, there is no way of telling how much is being spent fraudulently. More accurate, comprehensive reporting and more eyes on that reporting will  make it easier to identify and prevent fraudulent activity.

5. What happens to the federal spending that falls through the cracks?

Problem: There is no global mechanism in place to trace unreported spending. Recovery.gov, on the other hand, has the Recovery Operations Center (ROC), which is responsible for proactively reviewing and analyzing the data for any possible fraudulent activity. Suspicious data is reported to the relevant Office of the Inspector General and is overseen by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RATB). The RATB, ROC analysts, and the transparency of Recovery.gov together achieved remarkably low instances of fraud.

6. How much agency funding goes to compensating federal workers? How does that compare with contractor compensation?

Problem: There is no salary or compensation data recorded. Contracts also are not put online, so it is impossible to determine exactly how much we spend on the federal contractor workforce. Seeing federal worker compensation data next to contractor compensation data would help the government make better decisions and become more cost-efficient.

7. How much federal money goes to a big defense contractor such as Lockheed Martin?

Problem: Federal contracting data is far more convoluted than it seems on the “Top 10 Contractors” list provided by USASpending.gov. A quick search through the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), which should have identical contract data, shows that Lockheed Martin Corporation had over 1000 contract transactions with the US Government in December of 2012 alone, while USASpending.gov reports only 16 for the whole year. A comparison of total reported transactions of Lockheed Martin Corporation in FY2012 with the amount displayed on the top contractor list also shows a great discrepancy—$269,247,299 versus $35,791,490,275.

Further, the lack of unique identifiers for a parent company and subsidiaries makes it impossible to compile total contract dollars per entity—subsidiaries are listed separately and even parent corporations can have multiple listings. A second listing for Lockheed Martin Corporation lists another $882 million in contracts and a third lists $170 million; if subsidiaries such as Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems Inc. are added, the numbers get much higher.

8. When we ship federal contracts overseas, which countries are reaping the benefits of our tax dollars?

Problem: While USASpending.gov maps domestic contractors to some extent, there is no record of which contractors are foreign-based companies or which country they are based in. Mitsubishi, for instance, is listed as a California-located company because one of its main US offices is located in Irvine. Some foreign contractors are even lumped together under one category, making it impossible to distinguish which countries each is connected to.

9. How did the National Endowment of the Arts or the Armed Forces Retirement Home spend taxpayer dollars in 2012?

Problem: Small agencies are often lumped together, so their spending is not recorded individually. In the case of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, an independent government agency, the last spending data reported in USASpending.gov was for FY2003.

10. Can I rely on the data presented by USASpending.gov?

Problem: There is a huge amount of spending not reported or insufficiently reported—at least $1.55 trillion was misreported in 2011. Approximately 70% of USASpending.gov information is inconsistent with numbers in program-level reporting, and half of the agencies with inconsistent data aren’t reporting at all.

To learn more about USASpending.gov and what we can do to fix it, click here for our in-depth analysis.

Image by Marc Orro from The Noun Project.

By: Christine Anderson
Public Policy Fellow, POGO

Christine Anderson At the time of publication Christine Anderson was a public policy fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Information Access

Authors: Christine Anderson

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