Here’s What Treasury’s Data Lab Found in 10 Years of Federal Contracting Data

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Year after year, 6 to 8 percent of contract spending is obligated in the final week of the fiscal year.

Federal agencies tend to spend the most money on contractors the week after a continuing resolution and the week before the end of the fiscal year, according to the latest data set released by the Treasury Department’s Fiscal Service Data Lab.

The team at the Data Lab are on a quest to make federal spending data more accessible, in terms of physical access to the data, as well as making it easier for people to understand.

“We believe that data plus use equals value and want to inspire others to use USAspending data to create their own value,” said Daniel Cain, director of data transparency at the Fiscal Service. “These new tools help to answer these interesting but complicated questions and shows the power of the data available on USAspending.gov.”

The first data sets and visualizations went live in April. The team on Wednesday released a new data set and analysis breaking down federal contract spending from 2007 to 2018.

Over the last decade, federal contract spending spiked at $560 billion in 2010, the year after Congress signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an $831 billion spending package aimed at the nation’s infrastructure.

Spending normalized over the next five years to a low of $440 billion in 2010, just below 2007 levels. The numbers have been trending upward since, topping $510 billion in 2017.

Data Lab analysts looked at contract spending week by week, dispelling any question of whether agencies go on spending sprees before the end of the fiscal year. For example, in 2007, contract spending reached a peak of $18 billion in the final week of September. The next highest week, in April, was only $7.8 billion.

Year after year, 6 to 8 percent of contract spending is obligated in the final week of the fiscal year.

Analysts also found a predictable monthly rhythm to spending patterns.

“[S]pending tended to rise and fall on a monthly cadence, with roughly one small peak and one small drop per month,” they said.

The Data Lab team also looked at spending based on the kind of appropriation—namely, spending bills or continuing resolutions. The analysis showed agencies tend to spend a lot the week after a continuing resolution is passed. This makes sense, analysts said.

“If agencies are unable to issue new contracts because adequate funds are not available under continuing resolutions, needs accumulate, and then are satisfied once funding is available,” they concluded.

Conversely, “We found that legislation for new appropriations decreased the expected amount of spending in the very short term, although the result was not statistically significant in all cases explored,” they wrote.

However, charting the data showed another interesting trend: a decline in spending on professional services when Congress budgets through appropriations. “This suggests that new appropriations allow the government to engage in longer-term budgeting, potentially facilitating forward-looking spending decisions.”

“Our hope is that this analysis will encourage others to leverage USAspending data to develop their own research questions, and advance data analytics capabilities to enable better decisions,” said Justin Marsico, senior policy analyst and product owner at the Fiscal Service Data Lab.