Defense

Widespread errors hinder Obama administration's open government initiative

There are two sides to the Obama administration's push for open government:

On the positive side: A lot of new websites have sprung up offering anyone who's interested access to data on government spending, contracts, improper payments, nutrition, education, auto safety, air travel, air quality and hundreds of other subjects.

On the negative side: A lot of the data is wrong.

Consider USASpending.gov. It's supposed to provide the public with a look at the very heart of the U.S. government -- how agencies spend taxpayers' money. Contracts, loans, grants and other spending are enumerated in searchable databases.

The problem is, "the quality of these databases is widely considered to be problematic," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation. "We found over $1.2 trillion worth of misreported spending in 2009 alone," Miller told a House subcommittee March 11.

The Sunlight Foundation created its own online database, Clearspending, to catalog the government's errors.

Launched in late 2007, USASpending.gov has been redesigned three times, and "it's pretty impressive-looking," Miller says in a video clip on the foundation's website.

USASpending.gov offers maps showing which states benefit most from particular government contracts. Colorful bubble charts depict the growth of contracts, grants, loans and other payments during the past decade. And there are links to popular spending searches, such as Gulf oil spill contracts and higher education grants.

"Unfortunately, its data is almost completely useless," Miller says.

Take Agriculture Department spending, for example. Federal budget documents report show the department spends $12.7 billion a year on school lunches, but USASpending.gov reports only $250,000, Miller told the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on information technology.

Agriculture Chief Information Officer Chris Smith said his department is not required to report individual expenditures of less than $25,000 to USASpending.gov, which would make reporting most spending on school lunch programs unnecessary. But in the future, the department will report spending totals, he said.

Agriculture is not alone. "Almost every agency has one or more programs that fail to report their spending," Miller told the subcommittee.

In addition to incomplete reporting, USASpending.gov has a "poorly designed, unreliable" system for identifying recipients of government funds, Miller said.

A contracting giant such as Boeing Co., which builds warplanes, satellites, computer systems and other items for various branches of the U.S. government, "should have a unique identifier," she said. That way, taxpayers would be able to search for Boeing and find out how much money it is getting from the federal government, whether it's from the Defense, Homeland Security or some other department.

Similarly, each payment should be clearly linked to its recipient. "In other words, each transaction must be identified, like checks in a checkbook," Miller said.

But on USASpending.gov they're not.

It's not that the government doesn't have the information, Miller said. "Agencies typically use purpose-built systems for managing their spending that is separate from public reporting systems and [those internal systems are] much more accurate. In essence, agencies are maintaining two sets of books," she said.

Flawed though USASpending.gov might be, the website "deserves praise for its growth and improvement," Miller said. "When we first conducted this analysis, we had to obtain a copy of the data by shipping a hard drive to Maryland. Today we are able to download it directly from the USASpending.gov website."

But being able to download unreliable data is dubious improvement, she said.

More highly regarded is Recovery.gov, a website set up in 2009 to track spending under the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"[Recovery.gov] was very well done. It got the information out quickly," said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., subcommittee chairman. The website has inspired multiple spinoffs, including one devoted to mistaken payments -- PaymentAccurcy.gov, he said.

The mass of government data is still ill-organized, however. It lacks a central portal that would enable people to find specific data buried in the multitude of databases now open to public perusal, Lankford said.

"People outside the beltway" don't necessarily know to go to the Agriculture Department website for information about food stamps. Nor do most know that the Defense Department is a major provider of education assistance, he said.

But building a central portal to data is "an enormous challenge," said Daniel Werfel, comptroller at the Office of Management and Budget. Instead, the Obama administration is using "branding" to make information easier to find. Essentially, that's giving databases obvious .gov names such as Grants.gov, for finding information about federal grants, Data.gov for access to a sprawling assortment of government data, and Recalls.gov for information on unsafe products.

Lankford wasn't impressed. "Data.gov has not matched its promise," he said. The website was supposed to offer access to "high-value data sets," but instead offers such information as "the population count of wild horses and burros.

"We want to see data that can be used to hold government accountable," but that is "noticeably absent from Data.gov," Lankford said.

Part of the problem is that there are no common data standards among agencies, Werfel said.

OMB should create them, Lankford said.

He was not entirely critical. "This is the first administration to make this kind of data available," he said. "Way to go on starting it and getting it out there." The question now is where is it going?

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