March 15, 2010 By Russell Nichols
The federal Web site created by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to improve government spending transparency has insufficient or inconsistent information from agencies -- partly because the OMB didn't provide enough guidance on how to submit data properly, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Authorized under the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA), the Web site, www.USAspending.gov, tracks more than $1 trillion in contracts, loans and grants that federal agencies award each year. While the GAO report points out that the OMB is meeting six out of nine FFATA requirements, recurring data holes between the Web site and the agencies raised some red flags.
"There was either information left out or the information provided didn't match agency records," said David A. Powner, director of IT management issues for the GAO. "It didn't appear that it was intentional. But agencies and entities shouldn't get sloppy in their reporting."
The OMB knew about these concerns prior to the GAO report released Friday, March 12, and officials said they've been working to address them. In February, the OMB issued guidance to every agency with a data quality framework, as part of the FFATA requirements. And each agency has identified a senior official responsible for the quality and objectivity of federal spending information, which should conform to OMB guidance.
"The constructive criticisms that we received addressed issues which were in place before this administration took office, though we are working aggressively to fix the problems that were allowed to continue for too long," said Tom Gavin, OMB spokesman. "We are moving aggressively to improve data collection, but it is important to note that collecting data on every dollar that the U.S. government spends is a major undertaking."
The two FFATA requirements that the OMB has failed to fulfill include putting "sub-award" data on the Web site, which the report notes was required by January 2009. The OMB also failed to submit a required annual report to Congress detailing the use of the site and the burden of reporting.
Out of the random sample of 100 awards reported to OMB, each one had "at least one required data field that was blank or inconsistent with agency records," according to the report. The most common data gaps included titles describing the purpose of the award and the location where the award would be directed. With the report, the GAO released recommendations, including that the OMB implement a plan for collection and reporting of sub-award data, and develop a process to make sure agencies comply with reporting requirements.
As outlined in the Open Government Directive from December 2009, the OMB expects to release a specific plan for the collection and reporting of that data and a time frame for posting it on USASpending.gov this spring, Gavin said. Also, efforts to relaunch the site have already begun.
"In the near future, the site will be relaunched in a more user-friendly, data-intensive format," Gavin said. "USAspending 2.0 will provide much improved navigation, more powerful search capability and the scalability necessary to fulfill the promise of transparency."
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