Spending database takes shape

Much work remains to be done to create mandatory database by the 2008 deadline

Federal spending database page

The Office of Management and Budget has less than five months left to create a public database of all federal grants, loans and contracts and get federal agencies onboard with the new system. 

While some federal officials are busy gathering information on their agencies’ contracts, grants and loans, other officials are involved in testing the basic architecture of the spending database. Most experts suggest that a decentralized database using available network-centric technologies is preferable to creating a mammoth centralized database.

“We suggested we could probably meet the intent of the legislation by more of a network-centric pilot instead of building an überdatabase,” said Mike Krieger, director of information policy at the Defense Department’s Office of the Chief Information Officer. “Using net-centric technology, agencies would be held accountable for the integrity of their own data.”

The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 charges OMB with corraling agencies to provide accurate data for a public database that Congress said would improve government accountability.

By July 31, DOD expects to begin testing the technology behind what OMB officials hope will be a foundation for a permanent federal spending database. Using lessons learned and technology from DOD’s Maritime Domain Awareness Community of Interest, DOD will apply Web services to create a portal for integrating the General Services Administration’s Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG) and various DOD spending databases.

Meanwhile, OMB is working on other fronts to meet the legislative deadline and test measures that would let people search the spending database for subcontracts and subgrant awards, said Robert Shea, OMB’s associate director for management and chairman of a task force created to implement the new spending database law. Shea couldn’t offer many details on those short-term pilots, but he said they would use existing databases, including FPDS-NG and OMB Watch’s FedSpending.org.

“We are pursuing the simpler route in the short term,” Shea said. “We will pull from existing databases, clean up the data and make it more easily searchable.”

OMB posted Extensible Markup Language schema for information exchange on an internal Web site so agencies can test them, Shea added.

“Our approach offers a reuse of data so once they make it accessible, they can use it for so many other things,” said Carol Macha, DOD’s project lead for implementing the new database law. “Users will get more accessible, more visible data at a cheaper cost for the government.”

If that data is not accurate, however, such a database could create problems, said Gary Bass, OMB Watch’s executive director.

“When you yank data from each distributed site, are you yanking the right data?” he asked. “There is an enormous amount of data cleanup that has to be done as well. There are inaccuracies in many areas, including company addresses and company ownership.”

Shea and Krieger said agencies are working to improve data quality. The Health and Human Services Department, in particular, is busy cleaning its data.

Diana King, the spending database project leader in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, said the office has conducted a test to learn whether its grants system can provide the necessary grant and subgrant information. “We can store information for subgrantees, but we need more clear definitions and interface points,” she said.

Bass and others praised OMB’s work so far in developing the federal spending database. A congressional aide with knowledge of the law said lawmakers are confident OMB will have something ready by January 2008.
Can a database be too popular?As the Defense Department begins testing a decentralized database designed to provide greater accountability for the department’s spending, Pentagon leaders are uncertain how quickly the database will respond to user queries.

Carol Macha, DOD’s project leader for the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act project, said the department’s federated method for integrating databases could result in latency, or slow responses to people’s search requests.

“We don’t have an idea of what it will do to the network load,” Macha said. “We will have to address that as the pilot moves forward.”

If the government’s experience is anything like that of OMB Watch, whose FedSpending.org serves as a model for the government’s database for tracking spending, network issues will be significant. Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, said people have conducted more than 6 million searches on his organization’s site since October 2006.

OMB Watch stores all of its federal spending information in a single database, but DOD’s test database uses Web services to gather and present information from multiple databases. High traffic volumes could tax the distributed system.

Bass said no matter which approach the Office of Management and Budget and DOD finally choose, a good user interface is perhaps the most important feature.

“We spent a considerable amount of time focusing on making our site accessible,” he said. “OMB needs to make sure [the interface] is a major part of the development process.”

— Jason Miller

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