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Feds Still Misreport Spending Data, Watchdogs Say

Sunlight Foundation analysis finds data federal agency reporting to remains incomplete and inconsistent.
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Federal agencies are still misreporting spending data to an online dashboard that last year misrepresented the allocation of $1.3 trillion in federal funds, according to an open-government watchdog agency.

Only one of three metrics the Sunlight Foundation used to gauge the reliability of data on the website has improved since the organization evaluated the site last year, according to a new Clearspending report conducted by the advocacy group.

The new report is a followup to one conducted last year that discovered significant inaccuracies with the data on the site, and covers federal spending for fiscal year 2008 through FY 2010.

[Which government agencies came out on top of the InformationWeek 500 list? See 15 Government IT Innovators: InformationWeek 500.] is one of a number of transparency websites created by the Obama administration to provide more insight into how federal agencies are spending money and to make them more accountable for where funds are going. But the foundation and other federal watchdog groups--including the government's own Government Accountability Office—have criticized the site for not accurately representing spending data.

The foundation's latest report judged data on the site according to three metrics: consistency, completeness, and timeliness. While agencies improved on the last metric, they continued to miss the mark on others.

In terms of the consistency of data, only 33% of federal programs are reporting information to the site that does not have discrepancies with the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, a reporting mechanism the foundation uses to check accuracy of the data. That number has declined steadily since 2008, with 35% reporting consistent data that year and 34% reporting it in 2009.

The foundation cited a lack of enforcement that "has weakened the incentive for agencies or programs to accurately report their spending" as the reason for the discrepancies and, until an incentive is introduced, they likely will continue to occur.

Moreover, 87% of all reported 2010 spending lacked some required information, making the data on the site largely incomplete, according to the report.

Timeliness of reporting data was a bright spot in the report, but even that finding "is ultimately diminished by the inconsistency and incompleteness of the data reported," according to the foundation.

Agencies have a 30-day requirement to report data, and in 2010 they fell within that requirement for the first time, reporting data within 27 days on average, according to the report. In 2008, it took them 51 days and in 2009 their timeliness actually decreased, taking agencies an average of 58 days to report data.

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