Federal spending database defies doubters

The Office of Management and Budget initially doubted the need for or the possibility of developing a single, online, publicly accessible database with all contracts, grants, loans and other transactions. But after Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) shepherded the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act through Congress and it became law, administration officials rethought the possible.

And now 15 months later, that database is reality. OMB today officially launched the first version of USASpending.gov, more than two weeks before the congressionally mandated Jan. 1 deadline.

“This is an example of what can happen when Congress and the executive branch have a shared goal and Congress holds the executive branch accountable,” said Robert Shea, OMB’s associate director of administration and government performance and the lead in developing the FederalSpending.gov Web site, at the launch briefing in Washington. “We saw what could be done when OMBWatch launched their version and we partnered with them.”

In fact, the administration bought OMBWatch’s software for about $600,000 and developed the entire database for less than $1 million. This doesn’t count the hundreds of hours agencies put toward collecting, formatting and uploading data on all these transactions. Agencies spent more than $400 billion on contracts in fiscal 2006 and $2.8 trillion across all categories.

USASpending.gov is similar to the recently updated version of the OMBWatch site. Users of the federal site can search by name, place of performance, agency, product or service category or the top 100 recipients governmentwide. The agency searches are limited to top 10 contracts, top five congressional districts, and products or services.

Shea said the first iteration of the federal spending database includes all transactions after there was some concern it would provide only contracts and grants.

He credited the agencies for defining the requirements, producing the data and ensuring the quality of the site.

“This is a work in progress,” he said. “We will improve data timeliness and data accuracy.”

Coburn said at the launch that the database was a “herculean task,” and does more than create transparency. He said it continues to ensure we have a free society.

“The only thing that enables us to have a free society is transparency,” he said. “It will make the government more efficient through its accounting and financial management.”

Coburn added that he was pleased OMB beat the deadline because so many times Congress passes legislation and the implementation never comes on time.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), one of the main House sponsors of the bill, said in a statement today that the launch of USASpending.gov was a watershed moment for government accountability.

“Today’s an important day for all of us who believe sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Davis said. “We included an ambitious time frame; we knew it would be difficult. I congratulate all of those who rose to the occasion and met this challenge” two weeks ahead of schedule.

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