USASpending.gov numbers off by $1.3 trillion, report says

HHS worst offender for non-reporting, Sunlight Foundation claims

The Health and Human Services Department is the worst offender among federal agencies in failing to report its spending data to the USASpending.gov spending website, according to a new report from the Sunlight Foundation watchdog group.

HHS did not report $495 billion in spending to USASpending.gov in 2009, which represented more than half of the department’s total spending that year, the report states.

Ranking second through fifth in failure to report in the watchdog group's ClearSpending project report were:

  • The Veterans Affairs Department, $48 billion unreported.
  • The Agriculture Department, $14 billion unreported.
  • The Social Security Administration, $13 billion unreported.
  • The Railroad Retirement Board,  $11 billion unreported.


Related stories:

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In total, the foundation claimed it discovered $1.3 trillion in misreported or unreported federal spending on USASpending.gov in 2009. The foundation said it used a method developed by the Government Accountability Office to compare agency spending accounts for grants and contracts against a separate database of aggregated spending.

Aggregated data on USASpending.gov “is almost completely useless,” Ellen Miller, executive director of the Foundation, said Sept. 7 in a presentation at the Gov 2.0 Summit conference in Washington. The conference was sponsored by O’Reilly Media and UBM TechWeb.

“We found over $1.3 trillion in broken reporting in 2009 alone, and that is more than half of the spending for that year,” Miller said. “You cannot trust any of the aggregate numbers you get from the site.”

Miller said the foundation has shared its findings with government officials, who responded that they are working on fixing the problems, but the results have been primarily redesigns of the USASpending.gov site.

“All we have gotten is redesigned websites,” Miller said. “We are beginning to worry that the administration is more interested in style than substance.”

More broadly, Miller praised the Obama administration for its focus and commitment to open government and transparency and for the White House’s Open Government Directive of December 2009, but she also suggested the momentum has slowed.

“In many respects, this administration has gone further, and faster, than any administration before it,” Miller said. “But now, 20 months later, it appears that the drive for data transparency has stalled.”

Regarding Data.gov, the White House’s effort to spur agencies to publish more federal data publicly, Miller criticized federal agencies for publishing only 75 new datasets as a result of their open-government planning in the spring of 2010 and singled out several agencies for selecting datasets with less value for the public.

The Interior Department ought to be publishing mine safety inspection data, for example, rather than head counts for wild horses in the national parks, Miller said.

Overall, Data.gov has been “hugely disappointing,” she said.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Sun, Aug 14, 2011 shirley jones georgia 30133

what I have read doesnt surprise me ,no one seam's to be accountable. they have a good goverment job getting a well paid salery ,and dont appreciate their job and what they should working to save tax dollars. this is a group that should be cut,if they cant do the JOB.

Fri, Sep 10, 2010

FedGov has not had good accounting records for several decades or longer. In audit after audit, one or more cabinet departments (almost always including DoD) simply flunks due to lack of a usable audit trail. They badly need one accounting system Fed-wide, or at least standardized systems so data CAN be collected to be sliced and diced. A few years back, they were going put Treasury in charge of such an effort, but it never went anywhere. It is absurd that every little Podunk agency keeps their own books. Money is money, and it is All The Same Store. How hard a concept is that for Congress to grasp?

Thu, Sep 9, 2010 DC Fed DC

The Sunlight Foundation was interviewd on DC's FedRadio yesterday. What the author of this article didnt state that was mentioned in the interview is that USASpending is inherently inaccurate because the foundational data comes from two pre-existing sources; FPDS and FAADS (FAADS-plus), that are historically and notoriously inaccurate. If you start with bad data, it is hard to expect the end result to be much better. The foundation acknowledged this in the interview. The other thing this artical neglects to mention is the methodology used by the foundation to determine inaccuracy. Interested readers should visit the site (clearspending.com) and evaluate the methodology and source data before accepting the headline of this article or the conclusions the foundation is promoting at face value. There are a lot of issues to be concerned about when evaluating UsaSpending.GOV. the three criteria used by the foundation are just the easiest to verify.

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