USAToday gave a sobering report this week which reaffirmed the inability of our government to be both accurate and transparent.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) audited spending data from 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, by comparing government agency records with those found on USASpending.gov. The GAO reported that only 2-7% of the numbers found on the website is ‘fully consistent with agencies’ records.” and that at least “$619 billion from 302 federal programs” was missing. You can read the GAO report here.
USASpending.gov states at the top of the website that it is “An Official Web Site of the United States Government”. Moreover, its tagline cheerfully announces, “Government spending at your fingertips”. Except when the data is not accurate.
Some of the key discrepancies include:
“• 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.
For more than 22% of federal awards, the spending website literally doesn’t know where the money went. The “place of performance” of federal contracts was most likely to be wrong.
Unfortunately, this poor performance of USASpending.gov is not an anomaly. In 2013, the Sunlight Foundation released its “Clearspending” report that also analyzed data from USASpending.gov in 2011:
“The government’s USAspending.gov allows the public to search how it spends money. However, as Clearspending’s findings show, what the federal government posts online about their grants doesn’t always match up with available bookkeeping records (ie. a federal audit). In conducting the Clearspending analysis, Sunlight measured the grant spending on USASpending.gov across three metrics: consistency, completeness, and timeliness. The $1.55 trillion in misreported funds in 2011 account for 94.5 percent of the total grant spending data reported that year. It was an increase from 2010 but lower than that in 2009” (emphasis added)
Yet 2011 was supposed to be a key year for USASpending.gov. Tom Coburn noted that, ““The administration set a goal of 100 percent accuracy by the end of 2011. Three years later the federal government cannot even break a 10 percent accuracy rate.” Coburn was one of the leaders of the transparency website back in 2007 along with then-Senator Barack Obama. It was one of Sen. Obama’s early achievements.
USASpending.gov has been under the authority of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since its inception. The GAO reported that the OMB had “ignored repeated warnings from the GAO that reporting standards for executive branch agencies fell short. The OMB said it recognized the errors but never took steps to correct them”.
In May, therefore, Congress passed the DATA Act, which was subsequently signed into law. This takes USASpending.gov from the OMB and hands it over to the Department of the Treasury.
For those expecting the Department of the Treasury to fix the problem of transparency on how the government spends its tax dollars, think again. The Department of the Treasury is the parent agency of the IRS — and we all know how transparent the IRS has been with record-keeping.