Government's biggest spenders are the least transparent, report finds

Mecatus Center's performance scorecard

The federal government’s biggest-spending agencies tend to disclose less about how their work benefits the public, according to a new study.

In its eighth annual report on agency transparency and performance, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University gave less than satisfactory scores to agencies that accounted for 87 percent of federal spending in 2006. Agencies representing 13 percent of federal spending 2006 received satisfactory or better scores, down from 15 percent in last year’s study.

The top-scoring agency was the Transportation Department, earning 53 out of a possible 60 points, followed by the Labor and Veterans Affairs departments, which tied for second place at 51 points apiece. The State Department ranked third in the study with 50 points.

Some of the government’s largest agencies had some of the lowest scores: the Health and Human Services (25 points), Homeland Security (30 points), and Housing and Urban Development departments (30 points).

Overall, 11 agencies improved their scores in 2006 compared with 2005, while 11 turned in lower scores and two were unchanged.

To reach those results, Mercatus researchers analyzed the annual performance reports of the 24 agencies covered by the Chief Financial Officers Act. The reports are mandated by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, which requires agencies to disclose their financial data and achievements to the public.

To evaluate GPRA reports, researchers used 12 criteria in three broad categories: transparency of reporting, the extent to which public benefits are communicated and leadership in using performance data to improve agency work.

In the report, Mercatus officials made it clear that their purpose was not to judge the quality of the actual results that agencies produced but rather to ascertain how well the agencies’ reports convey those results to the public.

“We review the reports solely from this perspective and not as accountants, government insiders or experts on the functions of particular agencies,” they said.

Criteria include whether agencies present information clearly and concisely, offer a set of performance metrics that captures public outcomes that a lay reader can understand, and provide assurance that the agency is taking effective steps to resolve management hurdles.

In general, the quality of disclosure in agency reports has improved, Mercatus officials said. “But the improvement has not been as rapid or as widespread as we had hoped,” they added.

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