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3/16/2011
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Watchdogs Criticize Federal Data Dashboard Accuracy

The GAO and The Sunlight Foundation separately criticized the Federal IT Dashboard and USASpending.gov for faulty information.

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The Obama administration has backed up its plan to boost transparency by releasing heaps of federal data via its open-data push. But both federal and independent watchdog agencies are criticizing the administration for inaccuracies they've found in at least two of the federal government's online data repositories.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found numerous errors on the Federal IT Dashboard concerning data about federal IT investments that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) uses to track investment changes and identify performance issues, it said in a report (PDF) released online Tuesday.

Separately, The Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group, performed an analysis that found nearly $1.3 trillion of federal spending as reported on the USASpending.gov Web site is inaccurate. Sunlight Foundation co-founder and Executive Director Ellen Miller testified before Congress last week about the findings of the organization's Clearspending analysis of the site.

The GAO report took a look at ratings of selected IT investments on the IT dashboard to see if they accurately reflected the performance of the project they represented. Specifically, the agency found inaccurate cost ratings for six of the investments and inaccurate schedule ratings for nine.

For example, the dashboard rating for a Department of Homeland Security investment reported significant changes in the cost of the project for 3 months in 2010. GAO analysis of the project, however, showed less variance in cost during the same time period, according to the report.

The agency cited "weaknesses in how agencies report the data to the dashboard, such as providing erroneous data submissions, as well as limitations in how OMB calculates the ratings" for the misinformation presented on the dashboard.

"Until the selected agencies and OMB resolve these issues, ratings will continue to often be inaccurate and may not reflect current program performance," the GAO said.

The Sunlight Foundation's analysis focused on another key open-data site, the Federal IT Dashboard, which posts financial and other data about current federal IT projects.

Miller's appearance last week before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's Subcommittee on Technology and Information Policy is not the first time she has been critical of USASpending.gov. At the Gov 2.0 Summit last September, she called data on the site "almost entirely useless" because of flaws.

She had kinder words for the Web site before the subcommittee last week, however, according to a transcript of her testimony posted online.

"We do not believe that the problems affecting USASpending.gov are the fault of the Web site or the people that maintain it," Miller said. "Indeed, USASpending.gov deserves praise for its growth and improvement."

Instead, like the GAO, Miller faulted agencies for not doing their part to provide accurate data sets and information to transparency dashboards, and said this kind of behavior also jeopardizes the administration's entire commitment to open government. "Until agencies begin to take this responsibility more seriously, federal spending transparency will remain an unfulfilled promise," she said. "And what is true for federal spending transparency is equally true for the Open Government Directive."

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