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9/7/2010
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Gov 2.0 Summit: Advocate Calls USASpending Data 'Useless'

Sunlight Foundation director Ellen Miller questioned the federal government's commitment to transparency initiatives, speaking at a presentation at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C.




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An open government advocacy group is trying to keep the federal government honest about its spending with a new online scorecard that analyzes data on USASpending.gov.

Calling the data from USASpending.gov "almost entirely useless," Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, said Tuesday that citizens need to take a more active role to monitor the openness of the government's transparency initiatives.

Miller's remarks came during a presentation at the Gov 2.0 Summit, produced by O'Reilly and UBM TechWeb. The event is being held in Washington Tuesday and Wednesday.

"We need to take on some of the responsibility for making this happen ourselves," she said. "Our job is to hold the administration's feet to the fire. Gov 2.0 isn't happening until citizens are truly engaged. It will not happen until we push for it."

To that end, the foundation has developed a new online tool, ClearSpending.com, that analyzes the reliability of federal data. The tool already has found that nearly $1.4 trillion in annual spending has been misreported in public government databases, she said.

"That's fully half of the spending," Miller said. "Some of the numbers are too big, some too small, and some not there at all. Some don't have the detail required, and others were reported much later than required."

The Sunlight Foundation has publicly criticized USASpending.gov before for not having accurate data, as has the federal government's own watchdog agency, the General Accountability Office.

However, in her remarks Tuesday, Miller questioned the feds' commitment to the entire Open Government Initiative, a mandate by President Obama to use technology and the web to give citizens more insight into government activities.

"It appears the drive for open government has stalled," she said.

In addition to the spending site, Miller was critical of other federal websites meant to accurately display government data.

She said that despite a recent redesign of the Data.gov site, "it's still mediocre as a data repository," which is exactly what it is meant to be. Data.gov allows people to search through various data sets from government agencies.

She also was critical of Recovery.gov, which provides access to data about where the government is spending Recovery Act money. Though she called it a "qualified success," she noted that Vice President Joe Biden had to apologize for the site's data quality on "The Daily Show," a satirical political news and commentary television show.

Miller did have some positive things to say about agency open government plans, applauding the White House itself, NASA, and the Department of Health and Human Services for their transparency initiatives.

But overall she said agencies need to do a better job in making their activities more transparent and ensuring the accuracy of data that they make available. Moreover, the government itself needs to do a better job enforcing the Open Government Directive, Miller said.

J. Nicholas Hoover provided additional reporting from the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington

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