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.


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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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