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USASpending.gov: NOT Your One-Stop Shop for Following Taxpayer Dollars

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (D-Calif.) posted a new discussion draft of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) of 2013 on Tuesday. We are thrilled to see the DATA Act return since it could be a complete game-changer on tracking how taxpayer dollars are spent(we’ll be taking a closer look to ensure that this discussion draft takes the best reforms from last year’s Senate and House bills to improve federal spending transparency).

The central reform in the DATA Act is overhaul of USASpending.gov. USASpending.gov is a federal spending information website poised to be an incredibly valuable resource to the American people. Created by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (2006) by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), it was designed “to provide the public with information about how their tax dollars are spent.” This database should shed light on a range of issues that are of interest to taxpayers, from government priorities in your community to national spending trends—in short, how each dollar is actually used.

Unfortunately, it is riddled with errors and gaps in information, making it impossible to follow taxpayer dollars. Just take a minute trying to answer these important questions using the website, and you’ll soon see its limitations.

The Sunlight Foundation took a deep dive with its Clearspending report, which compares the grants data in USASpending.gov to other federal reporting systems to determine the quality of government spending data available to the public. Updated this February, the report found that 94.5 percent of the obligations reported on by USASpending.gov in 2011 failed in at least one of three metrics: consistency, completeness, and timeliness. The wild inaccuracy of this data would never be accepted on a government audit and should not have to be accepted by the public.

USASpending.gov does acknowledge some of the flaws in its reporting methods, but glosses over them:

This method of grouping records by recipient name and state has some disadvantages. It may, for instance, treat a multi-state recipient as being more than one entity, thereby listing the same group twice in different states, or it may group unrelated entities together that happen to have the same name within the same state. But, the advantages of a common recipient name to enable aggregate totals across records outweigh the problems.

An April 6, 2010 memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget highlights the need to improve the site, noting, “Much more needs to be done to ensure the accuracy and the completeness of the data.” Some helpful improvements mandated in this memorandum included the introduction of sub-awardee data (previously only primary awards were reported) and new requirements for data quality. Despite these baby steps forward, however, there haven’t been enough improvements.

Final recipients of federal dollars are often missed, as only two levels of allocation are reported from often-longer chains. The new data quality requirements have done little to actually improve data quality. In fact, data quality has only gotten worse since 2010. The GAO recommendations to improve the database are still pending review. As the numbers of unreported and underreported obligations increase each year, it is becoming painfully clear that maintaining the accuracy of USASpending.gov is not a top priority for the agencies reporting to it. And, unfortunately, there is no penalty for that lack of attention.

In an enlightening, user-friendly animation, the Sunlight Foundation lays out the differences between different types of reporting spending (obligation-level reporting vs. program-level reporting) and the implications for accuracy of information. The animation draws out each step of the reporting process, noting the disconnect between the figures reported from the obligation side, provided by the Federal Assistance Award Data System (FAADS) and the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), and the figures from the program side, provided by the publicly available Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA). USASpending.gov draws its data from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which compiles data from FAADS and FPDS. “In theory, we should be able to add up the grant information reported to FAADS and compare the total against the number that's reported to CFDA. In practice, things don't always work that well.”

USASpending.gov is, at its roots, a broken tool. On an old, obsolete platform missing many different data streams, it is far from reliable or complete. The lack of standardized data and unique identifiers makes it nearly impossible to trust the numbers or even identify the incorrect information. It is a system so flawed that only major overhaul or a total reset can make the necessary changes.

What can we do in light of USASpending.gov’s endemic and systemic problems? Luckily, some members of Congress have offered proposals to vastly improve this system.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed the DATA Act (H.R. 2146, Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2012, sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). This reform legislation, modeled on Recovery.gov, would centralize and simplify spending reporting standards across agencies, require all recipients (in addition to funding providers) to disclose how federal dollars are being spent, and establish an independent commission to manage the site and provide oversight (similar to the RATB and ROC for Recovery.gov). This would resolve many of the issues with gaps in reporting, accuracy, and oversight. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced another version of the bill (S.1222), but it was stalled in committee. POGO supported this legislation, especially the stronger measures in the House version. Unfortunately, this landmark bill was allowed to die at the end of the session.

The Administration has also taken an interest in improving spending transparency through improving USASpending.gov. The President’s budget proposed moving USASpending.gov from its current location in the General Services Administration to the Treasury and appropriating $5.5 million to manage and expand the site, an approximately $2-3 million increase from previous funding through the E-Gov fund. Hailed as a “good first step” toward data improvement by Chairman Darrell Issa, this move could cut out the middleman in obligations-level reporting. Utilizing the Treasury’s resources as opposed to FAADS/FPDS reporting might result in more accurate data, though we are interested to see what role, if any, OMB will continue to play in terms of oversight.

Lauded as a victory for government transparency at its launch, USASpending.gov still has the potential to be a reliable tool for accountability. Passing the DATA Act in this Congress is essential to make the vision of USASpending.gov a reality.

By: Christine Anderson
Public Policy Fellow, POGO

Christine Anderson Christine Anderson is a public policy fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Information Access

Authors: Christine Anderson

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