The Curious Case of USASpending.gov's Missing $1.3 Trillion

The Obama administration is committed to transparency, at least in theory. To track the mountains of cash we're spending on contracts, wars, programs, initiatives, and stimulus packages, the government launched USASpending.gov, a tool designed to help the public understand where our tax dollars are heading. And where is all that federal spending going? Not to USAspending.gov, where an estimated $1.3 trillion worth of data is missing or wrong. If only there were a website for tracking cash missing from the cash-tracking site....

Oh!

According to Ellen Miller, director of D.C.-based watchdog the Sunlight Foundation, the federal spending database is missing more dollars than the U.S. deficit. Speaking at the Gov 2.0 Summit this morning, Miller told audience members that after analyzing more than 10 million rows of data to other sources, Sunlight discovered that "broken reporting" accounted for $1,361,672,559,288 of missing spending in 2009, showing that USASpending.gov is anything but reliable or complete.

"It's pretty impressive — looking," said Miller. "Unfortunately, its data is almost useless."

In its analysis, Miller's team compared data from USASpending.gov to data from several agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, and the General Services Administration. Sunlight discovered many discrepancies—for instance, the USDA's $9 billion in grants for school lunches were not reported; some $340 million in grants for firefighters were misreported by the Department of Homeland Security. Sunlight also found issues with misreported "obligations," money the government has committed to a recipient (and thus can't be spent elsewhere), though they may have not yet cut the check. Last year, there was a 30% increase in incompletely reported obligations. All in all, of the $2.6 trillion of government spending in 2009, 50% was incorrectly accounted for on USASpending.gov. "Things just don't add up," explained Miller. "[The] drive for data transparency has stalled."

To combat these widespread issues, Sunlight today launched ClearSpending, a site that analyzes how well government agencies are reporting their spending data on USASpending.gov—a fact-checker for the fact-checkers. ClearSpending will offer the public a system to assess federal spending in key areas: over reporting, under reporting, non-reporting, and late or incomplete filings.

If the Sunlight's new program works, it will shed new light on spending and bring improved transparency to the government, which normally just wastes millions on tools that are more "style than substance," as Miller phrased it.

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