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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Senator questions progress on federal spending Web site

A Web site launched last fall to track federal spending has not followed the law to provide up-to-date information on government contracts and grants, while a new bill would increase the amount of information agencies would have to post online.

The site, USAspending.gov, was launched in 2007 to fulfill one of the requirements of the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which requires the Office of Management and Budget to maintain a site listing organizations that receive more than $25,000 in federal funds.

Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., co-sponsored the funding accountability act, and when the bill was introduced, Obama said the spending site would be "an important milestone on the path to greater government transparency."

The law requires agencies to submit every 30 days a report listing the groups issued grants and the amount of the grant. USASpending.gov's data quality page shows, however, that some agencies, including the Homeland Security, Labor, Transportation and Veterans Affairs departments have not updated grant information since last year.

"OMB did a good job of getting the USAspending.gov Web site up and running, but now agencies must step up and fulfill their duties as required by law," Coburn wrote in an e-mail statement. "The agencies that are not posting information on each grant and contract awarded are violating the law. The American public deserves to know how their tax dollars are being spent."

In July, Robert Shea, then OMB's associate director for administration and government performance, attributed the lapse to glitches in the data provided to OMB, rather than a reluctance by agencies to submit the information. "I'm satisfied agencies are doing the best they can," said Shea, who stepped down from his OMB position on Sept. 2. "Everybody is making every effort to comply with the law. I'm proud of agency efforts to comply, and disappointed that we haven't been able to reflect that on USASpending."

Posting the grant data has proved problematic, Shea said, because, unlike contract data, grant data must be collected from various sources. Agencies are supposed to submit all grant awards to OMB by the 20th of each month, but he said, the data rarely comes in a format suitable for posting online and must be reformatted, which takes time. By contrast, OMB can pull data on contract awards directly from the federal procurement system in a format suitable for immediate posting.

The delays are caused by OMB bypassing current data reporting systems so it can post the grant data quickly, said Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy at OMB Watch. The group's site, FederalSpending.org, downloads grant data collected and published by the Census Bureau. OMB attempts to obtain the data directly from agencies rather than wait for it to be published by Census.

"There hasn't been a robust reporting system for noncontract awards data," Hughes said. "That's what [Shea] is trying to improve on."

Hughes added that his organization has not been critical of OMB because the agency has demonstrated consistent progress in overcoming the challenges the site faces.
OMB also faces a federal funding accountability act deadline to begin posting subgrant and subcontract data on the site by Jan. 1, 2009. That includes grants and contracts awarded by federal agencies to state and local agencies, which then award that money to other groups. Shea said the challenge to meet the deadline is "enormous."

"There's a provision in the law for an extension for some of those [requirements] for another 18 months," he said. "I expect we'll exercise that extension. ... We have to figure out how to get as much of that data as we can as soon as possible."

Hughes said the difficulty in meeting the deadline to post subgrant and subcontract data was no surprise. "We knew when the first law was passed that the subaward reporting would be very difficult. I think that's being realized currently," he said. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but I think the timelines are a little unrealistic."

The problems with posting data on the site may be compounded by another bill sponsored by Coburn, Obama and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Carper, D-Del. The 2008 Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act, introduced on June 3, expands the requirements of the spending Web site.

The bill, which has been referred to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, would require agencies to submit requests for proposals and contract information for posting on USASpending.gov to the site, allowing citizens to compare what the government asked for to what it purchased. In addition the bill would require the site to publish performance data on the contract and disclose additional information on the entities that receive federal awards.

"We're hoping the reaction to the new bill won't be 'It's too hard, we shouldn't do it,' " Hughes said. "We're hoping for a dialogue on how we can get this to work. We think this information is valuable and important." OMB Watch helped write both bills.

The bill also would require the site to provide better search capability and to offer data in a machine readable format such as XML. In addition, the bill requires agencies to certify that the entities receiving awards do not owe taxes.

Shea said he hopes OMB publishes the data in a way that allows the public to better track spending and determine if agencies could have spent the money better. "The purpose of sunlight is to cure wrong, and I just don't think the information is being used for that purpose yet," he said.

Asked if the site's visitors could track if agencies were spending money wisely, he replied, "I don't see that happening."

-Gautham Nagesh, NextGov.com

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