Showing everybody the money

OMB launches a federal spending Web site ahead of schedule to the surprise of skeptics

Data quality plans due

In March, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy asked agencies to improve the quality of the spending data they submit to the government’s database of record, the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. Agency progress reports were due to OFPP last week.

Data quality has been a major stumbling block for FPDS-NG, and there are concerns that USAspending.

gov, the new federal spending database, will have the same problems.

Glenn Perry, the Education Department’s senior procurement executive, said the memo spurred agencies to improve how they collect and report procurement data.

“We are doing things ongoing so that when data is generated, we are trying to figure out the best ways to get quality built upfront instead of after the fact,” Perry said.

— Jason Miller

Robert Shea, the Office of Management and Budget’s associate director of administration and government performance, said he worried last year when a bill that would require the government to create a public database of all contracts, grants, loans and other federal transactions — about $2.8 trillion in total — started gaining support on Capitol Hill. He organized a parade of agency experts to tell lawmakers why it couldn’t be done or how someone had already done it.

“I had enormous skepticism whether this could be accomplished,” Shea said last week during the launch of USAspending. gov in Washington. “Even when the bill became law, we said it couldn’t be done.”

However, after Shea became one of the program leaders, he and others began to realize that the government could develop such a database and finish it two weeks before the Jan. 1 deadline set by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.

“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,” Shea said. “We saw what could be done when OMB Watch launched their version, and we partnered with them.”

That partnership enabled the Bush administration to buy OMB Watch’s software for about $600,000. The government developed the entire database for less than $1 million, a figure that doesn’t count the hundreds of hours agencies spent collecting, formatting and uploading data on all spending transactions. Agencies spent more than $400 billion on contracts and $488 billion on grants in fiscal 2006.

Shea said the first iteration of the federal spending database includes all transactions, despite some initial concern that the site could provide only contracts and grants spending. He credited the agencies with defining the requirements, producing the data and ensuring the site’s quality.

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

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a co-sponsor of the enabling legislation, said completing the database was a herculean task that will create transparency in government and help guarantee 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 that OMB beat the deadline. Congress often passes legislation and implementations don’t happen on time, he said.

Some experts say USAspending.gov could have some welcome unintended benefits. Although the database will primarily be a tool for nongovernment users to hold agencies accountable, federal departments can view all their spending and see who they are doing business with, Shea said.

Glenn Perry, the Education Department’s senior procurement executive, said that although agencies are gaining contracting expertise, few have a good understanding of grant and loan data.

“We will get to see a bigger picture,”

Perry said. “It will be helpful to agencies so they understand where their work fits in with the rest of government.”

The database will also improve the quality of agencies’ spending data because agencies will become more aware of the data they collect, Perry added.

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, said the database will give agency program managers a better overall picture of their work because they can view similar programs across government. “This is a great management tool,” he said.

Bass added that he would like OMB to continue to expand the site with more data, better data quality and more services, such as a view of where the money is spent. 

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