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3/15/2010
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GAO Faults Federal Spending Site

The Government Accountability Office finds data quality on USASpending.gov lacking, and urges the White House to add subcontractor data to the site.

The government needs to do a better job tracking contracts and grant awards on USAspending.gov, its primary federal spending transparency Website, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the government's internal auditing agency.

In a report and survey of awards posted on USAspending.gov, the GAO found that the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the Website, is far behind schedule in including subcontractor spending data on the site as required, has failed to submit a required report on the site's use, and needs to clear up reporting guidance to agencies. It's an indication that even though transparency is a major Obama administration initiative, the task is easier said than done.

For example, after missing a 2007 deadline to launch a pilot effort to post subcontractor spending data to USAspending.gov, the OMB's eventual pilot to integrate that data didn't yield enough information to develop a thorough plan. OMB still has not begun including subcontractor spending data on the site.

GAO also found discrepancies in data reported on USAspending.gov and agency records, including blank data fields and inconsistencies with agency data. The GAO repeatedly found records lacking titles describing the purpose of the award and where the work was to be performed. GAO attributed these problems at least partially to a lack of OMB guidance on how agencies should fill in the fields and validate data submissions.

Overall, in a sample of 100 randomly surveyed awards, GAO found blank, inconsistent, or inadequate data in more than 5 of 17 data fields in almost 4/3 of those awards, and in at least one data field in 93 of the 100 sampled awards.

In a few cases, agencies did not report awards to USAspending.gov at all. Again, GAO faulted OMB for failing to create a process to identify non-reporting agencies and instead relying on voluntary compliance.

Additionally, GAO found, the Federal Procurement Data System - Next Generation, which collects information on contracts and procurement, doesn't let agencies submit funding sources for awards, which means that agencies have to separately report that data to OMB for USASpending.gov

The report recommends that the OMB director Peter Orszag take additional steps to firm up USAspending.gov, including: developing a formal plan for collecting and reporting subcontractor data; creating a process to ensure agencies report all award data; and revising guidance to clarify requirements for describing awards and validating award data.

According to the report, OMB plans to create a data quality dashboard of agency submissions, and, consistent with the Open Government Directive, the administration will issue additional guidance regarding internal controls over agency data. OMB also said it would be issuing a report on USAspending.gov's use sometime this year. Parts of OMB's recommendations may also be addressed by the updated version of USAspending.gov, which is due out soon.

USAspending.gov does have a data quality page with a large number of data points, but its usefulness has been questioned by open government advocates at the Sunlight Foundation. Data completeness metrics listed there show much more complete data than found by the GAO, and that site doesn't note whether the data is actually accurate.

The site's design has been described as a failure and it's graphical representations of data have been called into question.

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