Transparency advances slowed by data problems, groups say

Outside audit claims $1.2 trillion was misreported on USASpending.gov in 2009

President Barack Obama’s drive for greater transparency has brought many programs, but progress is difficult to judge because of shortcomings in spending data and reporting, according to testimony at a House hearing today.

The Obama administration has promoted the Open Government Directive and reporting to websites such as USASpending.gov and Recovery.gov. But agency data on spending is inconsistent and frequently misreported, testified Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, an open government watchdog organization.

“We found $1.2 trillion in misreported spending in 2009 alone,” which was based on an audit of federal grant data on USASPending.gov, Miller said at a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform Subcommittee. The figure does not include federal contract and loan data.


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For example, the Agriculture Department’s website lists the cost of its school breakfast and lunch programs at $12.7 billion, but only reports $250,000 of those costs to USASPending.gov, Miller said.

Chris Smith, CIO of USDA, said the department does not report individual expenditures of less than $25,000 to USASPending.gov. It is reconsidering that policy and will begin reporting an aggregate sum in the next fiscal year, he said.

The data errors, omissions and inconsistencies affect nearly all federal agencies, Miller added. Asked to grade the agencies on transparency, Miller said no agency would receive an “A.”

Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management of the Office of Management and Budget, acknowledged there are many spending data quality and reporting problems and said the administration is working on standardizing the data across agencies.

“The more people searching and using this data, the more we move in the direction of better quality,” he said.

Miller also called for improvements in data identifiers so that multiple contracts and grants belonging to a single recipient would be easily grouped together. Each contractor and recipient involved in multiple transactions should have an identifier that is common across the transactions, and each transaction should have a separate identifier, she said.

Contractor identification numbers, which are purchased through Dun & Bradstreet, also need to be made transparent to the public and hierarchical to reflect the ownership structures of subsidiaries, branches and locations, she said.

Jerry Brito, senior research fellow for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said while websites such as USASPending.gov and Data.gov have resulted in more data being released to the public, it is not necessarily helpful in determining the effectiveness of those programs.

That is because too little data is being reported on government performance, and the performance data that is released is suspect because it is self-reported and self-measured by federal managers, he said.

“One thing I have learned in my research is that in order to judge a program’s results, you need to understand what it is trying to accomplish. Only then will you be able to measure whether the program has achieved those aims,” Brito said.

Brito recommended that federal agencies hire third-party independent auditors to audit their performance and report those results. He described that as similar to corporate audits.

Although much federal data has been released by the Obama administration, much of it is data about regulated industries rather than data about government activities, Brito said.

For example, of the 3,000 datasets on Data.gov, half pertain to Environmental Protection Oversight of toxic chemical releases, he 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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