How to Improve

(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky/POGO)

In June, the Project On Government Oversight sent a letter to the Treasury Department and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) with recommendations to improve USAspending is a necessary and ambitious project that aims to inform taxpayers exactly how each federal agency spends their money and who receives it. Treasury and OMB originally launched USAspending in 2007. They recently re-launched the website after Congress added requirements to expand the website’s data and functionality. While the website is supposed to be both accurate and user-friendly, it has a number of data quality and design problems that make it hard to reliably use.

I asked POGO’s Sean Moulton about these problems and his recommendations to improve the site.

Nicholas Trevino: On, the Treasury states that it wants the website “to put important data into the hands of taxpayers by empowering them to track how their tax dollars are spent.” As of today, does USASpending live up to that goal?

Sean Moulton: Yes, I think it does. I think it can do a better job of accomplishing that goal, but it does put important information in the hands of taxpayers. There is a lot of information on USAspending: trillions of dollars spent, over more than a decade of spending. USAspending has an enormous amount of useful information, but the site has shortcomings in the searches, presentation of data, and most troubling with data quality.

The government is making strides. I’ve been working on this for over a decade, and they have made huge improvements over the amount of data on the website, the scope of spending. They recognize a lot of the big problems, and they’re trying to address them. Even now, people can answer a lot of the big questions they have about spending pretty reliably.

NT: Can you describe some of the search problems you had?

SM: A site providing access to complex data like federal spending has to have good search features. If people can’t easily find the answers they are looking for, they will assume the site doesn’t have them.

USAspending offers users a series of filters to conduct searches. It is a useful method that allows users to add or remove different search terms to refine their results. While they have tried to make the most important fields searchable, there aren’t filters for all of the spending data fields. So some users may not be able to conduct the searches they want to. Then there are some search filters that don’t work properly and don’t search enough fields.

NT: What is an example of a search filter that doesn’t work right?

SM: “Funding agency” is probably the most frustrating. This should be one of the easier things to do. You go in and you say, “I want to know how much Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency is spending.” Seems like an easy question.

The “funding agency” search seems to give users the ability to search for both full Departments and sub-agencies, but the sub-agency part doesn’t work. For instance, if you type in “Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),” it will autocomplete, indicating that this is a valid search entry for this filter. But when you run the search, you get no records. And you’re like “that seems impossible.”

Which is right. The FEMA records are in there, millions of dollars of spending, but the filter doesn’t search the sub-agency data field so it will never return results for it or any other sub-agency.

NT: In your letter you talk about “spending records gaps” particularly with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Could you provide some details?

SM: Some data is just not getting reported, which is a serious problem. And it has got to get fixed at each reporting agency, it’s their data. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at the Department of Agriculture is the biggest nutrition program the government runs. SNAP, which used to be called food stamps, helps millions of low-income families get enough to eat each month. It costs about $70 billion annually for the nationwide program. But if you search for SNAP awards for most years, you’ll only find a couple hundred million dollars. It’s just missing, and it’s not the only program. We found significant reporting gaps for other programs like the School Breakfast Program, Child Care and Development Block Grants, and federal Transit Capital Investment Grants, just to name a few.

NT: I guess this changes depending on the agency, but what tools do agencies have to ensure they’re reporting correct data?

SM: They have a number of programs and steps that they should be going through to verify the data before they report it in. But late last year, Inspectors General at most of the reporting agencies came out with their first rigorous reviews of data quality for their agencies in USAspending. The results were terrible, just beyond terrible. I thought they’d be bad, but there were agencies that had essentially a 100 percent error rate.

NT: Agencies have had to report data for years. How can they still have so many errors after all this time?

SM: In the past, they made the data quality look better than it was by checking if each field in each record was correct. So let’s say in a contract there are 250 fields, if they got two fields wrong, they’d claim they only had a less than 1 percent error rate. But if you got the recipient name and the amount wrong, most people would say, “I don’t care you got the rest right, this record is useless to me.”

But the Inspectors General used a new and improved approach to measuring data quality. They identified a number of key data fields, about 50 or so, like name, location, amount, etc., and if agencies got anything wrong in those key fields then the whole record was counted as an error. That’s why they got such a high error rate even after a decade of reporting to USAspending.

NT: With so many serious data quality problems, can agencies really make the data reliable?

SM: It is certainly going to take time and we expect there to be some agencies that make faster progress than others. But the good news is that all the recent extra attention on data quality, while very negative in tone, is already having an impact. For the current fiscal year we are seeing agencies finally fill some of these data gaps. The Department of Agriculture has reported more than $50 billion in SNAP awards for fiscal year 2018 and looks like it will fully report the program for the first time in the 11 years available on USAspending.

NT: Are you optimistic about USASpending’s future?

SM: Yes. Yes I am. There are definitely aspects of it I find frustrating and annoying, because I want them to be doing better right now. But I do know that there are serious people that are committed to improving this, inside the government, outside the government, in Congress. I know we’re going to continue to make progress. They might not make every fix and change I recommended in our letter but I’m optimistic that a year from now we’ll be in a better place, and a year from then hopefully better still.