Obama's open government goes under review

House subcommittee will hold hearing to review data entry problems and evaluate administration’s efforts at transparency

Government agencies struggle to input grant information into federal databases despite efforts to open the government, according to a nonpartisan watchdog group.

In reviewing grant award data in online databases, the Sunlight Foundation found agencies accurately reported their figures on grant information only 35 percent of the time. (Read the report.)

Officials continually fail to enter information in full, as required. Between 2007 and 2009, at least one-third of all entries into the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) were incomplete. The foundation also found the numbers increasing from 2007 to 2009 by 30 percent, or $1.68 trillion that is affected by the incomplete information. Officials enter some data, but they were late in adding it into the system — often nearly a month late, according to the report.

The Sunlight Foundation compared data on USASpending.gov website to corresponding information in CFDA, a comprehensive federal catalog of spending on grants. No corresponding information on contracts is available.


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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Technology and Information Policy Subcommittee will hold a hearing March 11 to review the problem and to evaluate the Obama administration’s efforts at transparency. Transparency has been a central theme of this administration from its beginning. (Watch the hearing live March 11 at 10 a.m. at the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's website.)

The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), has questions on whether Obama's open-government programs are working.

The subcommittee will hear from Danny Harris, CIO of the Education Department; Chris Smith, CIO of the Agriculture Department; and Danny Werfel, controller at the Office of Federal Financial Management at the Office of Management and Budget, along with academic experts.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, has some ways to remedy the problem. He said that for starters, federal employees who enter the data need to learn how to do it.

More technically, he suggested an integrated automated system that would red-flag errors, missing data and questionable entries. That system would have the most dramatic effect toward improvements, he said.

Amey also cited the problematic data he has found when querying information in the Federal Procurement Data System, an online record of spending data. The information is neither confirmed when officials first enter it nor verified afterward.

“Bad data in is bad data out,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Fri, Mar 11, 2011 Andrea Schneider Palo Alto, CA

Government Transparency is an important goal. Few federal agencies are organized yet, to fulfill requests about the grant data being made. Federal Agencies are capable of meeting these requests, once the internal system creates new ways of collecting and organizing data. Going further, it has to start with the data requested from grantees themselves in their grant applications. Changes in organizational capacity takes time, leadership and a sustainable internal commitment. This is hard work and goes hand in hand with implementing the Open Government Directive effectively. It isn't a two year project, whether in the public or private sector.

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