This story appears in the November-December issue of Government Executive magazine.
In April 2006, a young Democratic senator from Illinois and a graying fiscal conservative from Oklahoma introduced legislation to create a searchable database of federal monetary awards, essentially a Google for government spending.
The site would empower citizens to monitor how their tax dollars are spent and uncover waste. President George W. Bush signed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act five months later and USASpending.gov was born in 2007.
While co-sponsor Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican, pushed for greater financial transparency until retiring in December 2014, many say the other co-sponsor, now President Obama, ran out of steam.
USASpending could not account for $600 billion in grants and awards, when last checked by federal auditors. The White House Office of Management and Budget balked at a legislative proposal to establish a new watchdog agency that would ensure agencies deliver all spending data in searchable formats.
Whether due to disorganization or fear of disgrace, agencies to this day have not released financial information on the Web in formats that machines and people can understand, observers say.
At a time when the government is doling out $3.8 trillion annually, taxpayers are questioning where all that cash is going.
Obama once was—and maybe still is—one of them.
Screeching to a halt?
He ran for president with a message: “Every American has the right to know how the government spends their tax dollars, but for too long that information has been largely hidden from public view.”
Once elected, Obama’s administration stood up the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to keep tabs on $840 billion in economic stimulus money intended for shovel-ready projects.
Board Chairman Earl Devaney and anti-pork Republicans saw to it that Recovery.gov did just that. When the board wound down in September, estimates pegged the amount of money recouped, forfeited or saved at $157 million.
In December 2011, Devaney retired after recommending that Obama extend the money-tracking technique to all government awards. “Here’s where things come to a screeching halt,” he says. “I’m sad to say, I don’t see much progress since the day I left.”