Transparency Website Fails to Track Spending

Michi Iljazi

August 13, 2014

Sens. Coburn and Obama discussing transparency website legislation (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If messing up websites was a profession, the federal government would be considered an expert. Last year  Healthcare.gov failed to launch amidst great fanfare and promise. And, just last month, the FCC showed exactly why they shouldn’t be taking control of the internet after problems they had on their own web page caused the website to crash. Now, a government website dedicated to providing greater transparency for spending of taxpayer money is proving once again how inefficient the public sector can be when it comes to basic management. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the USASpending.gov site is riddled with problems with both missing data and inaccuracies of data collected.  And, it appears that the Obama Administration may be the key reason for the problems. Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times detailed the news that should alarm taxpayers and anyone concerned with accountability in government:

It’s supposed to be the government’s transparency website so that the public can see how taxpayer money is spent, but USASpending.gov is so error-prone that it’s missing more than $600 billion in awards from 2012 alone, and as much as 98 percent of its records were plagued by inaccuracies, according to a scathing new audit.

The website was a special bipartisan project of then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Tom Coburn during Mr. Obama’s brief tenure in Congress, but the Government Accountability Office said in a report last week that the Obama administration has been less than stellar in following through on making the openness initiative work.

Some agencies claimed not to know what to report, while others ignored the instructions. And even those that were reporting data got it wrong, the GAO said.

The website launched in December of 2007 as part of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which included both then-Senator Barack Obama (D-Illl.) and retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) among its sponsors. Senator Coburn has been an invaluable taxpayer advocate and it is troubling that a project he and the President championed has become such a disaster. The website has failed to account for more that $600 billion in just one year.  This is after more than five years in existence and should worry those who have fought so hard for such transparency efforts.

Grefory Korte with USA Today listed some of the data that has failed to make it to the website:

  • The Department of Health and Human Services failed to report nearly $544 billion, mostly in direct assistance programs like Medicare. The department admitted that it should have reported aggregate numbers of spending on those programs.
  • The Department of the Interior did not report spending for 163 of its 265 assistance programs because, the department said, its accounting systems were not compatible with the data formats required by USASpending.gov. The result: $5.3 billion in spending missing from the website.
  • The White House itself failed to report any of the programs it’s directly responsible for. At the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is part of the White House, officials said they thought HHS was responsible for reporting their spending.

There should be not much comfort in what actually is making it onto the website because aside from the data that isn’t being reported there is also major problems with the data that agencies are providing. The GAO found that aside from the hundreds of billions missing from the website, only a small percentage of the reporting that agencies filed were complete and accurate. The agency also had a difficult time tracking down reports to verify information submitted because original records were not available in many cases.

Even more troubling is the fact that these problems were getting noticed before the GAO’s findings were revealed last week. In June of 2013, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent out a memo to federal agency Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) urging them on the need for improvement of data quality for the USAspending.gov website and steps to be taken:

The information on USAspending.gov is populated with data sourced from agency financial assistance management systems and from the central Federal Procurement Data System. These systems include both financial data and narrative information about specific assistance and procurement awards made by Federal agencies throughout the fiscal year. Because existing reporting models are not directly tied to agency financial systems at the award level, it is imperative that each agency have an internal control and accountability structure in place to ensure that the data reported is accurate and complete. As USAspending.gov continues to evolve, OMB and Federal agencies will explore opportunities to establish more comprehensive and more automated data reporting methods that better integrate publicly reported award-level data with data in financial systems.

The concerns for how the site was reporting spending did not come from just those on the inside, outside groups who are engaged in the fight for transparency also raised red flags long before the recent GAO findings. In May of 2013, the Project On Government Oversight highlighted some unanswered questions that the website could not resolve, including:

How many federal dollars are spent in my community?
What small businesses in my community are receiving federal dollars?
How many jobs were created with federal spending?
How much fraud is there in federal spending?
What happens to the federal spending that falls through the cracks?
Can I rely on the data presented by USASpending.gov?

President Barack Obama said that, “Technology makes it possible for every American to know what is happening and to hold elected officials accountable,” when he was a Senator co-sponsoring the legislation that made the website possible. It is only possible of the leadership is in place to make sure it happens.

With the recent high-tech failures, it goes to show that politicians and big government bureaucracies cannot be trusted to carry out some of the easiest tasks of creating and maintaining websites.

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