By Emily Long 03/15/10 – NextGov.com –
The Office of Management and Budget has improved the transparency of federal spending but has limited tools to improve data quality and mandate agency compliance, according to observers.
Nextgov on March 12 reported that a Government Accountability Office audit found missing and inconsistent data on USAspending.gov, the federal contract awards database. The report blamed a lack of guidance from OMB for the incomplete and erroneous information.
One problem is the data is difficult to work with, a concern that extends beyond USAspending.gov, said Bill Allison, an analyst at the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. There are enough “garbage in-garbage out” databases, and it’s difficult to accurately assess performance using shoddy data, he added.
According to the report, OMB has yet to issue specific guidance on how agencies should fill in required data fields and validate the information submitted to USAspending.gov. Spokesman Tom Gavin said OMB expects to release a plan for collecting, reporting and posting data this spring and also will relaunch the Web site with better navigation and search capabilities.
GAO also found that OMB has no system in place for mandating compliance and has relied on agencies to voluntarily submit award information. OMB wouldn’t identify specific steps for holding agencies accountable for complete and accurate reporting, saying only that officials will be aggressive in working with agency leaders to meet goals. In keeping with President Obama’s open government directive, agencies have designated a senior official accountable for the quality and standardization of all federal spending data.
“If you say, for example, restrict funding, that doesn’t help you get to your goal of getting agencies to comply,” said Craig Jennings, director of federal fiscal policy at the nonprofit OMB Watch, adding the government has few punitive options in dealing with delinquent agencies.
Allison agreed that censuring agencies could result in less data being made public. He said one strategy would be to create a career track to reward agency personnel who build transparency effectively.
“It’s one of the biggest problems the transparency community has,” he said. “Plenty of carrots, but what kinds of sticks?”
GAO’s audit also found that OMB so far has not included subcontractor award data on the USAspending.gov site, which was required by January 2009. The agency has not submitted yet an annual report to Congress on site use and reporting burdens on award recipients.
“Collecting data on every dollar the government spends is a huge undertaking,” Gavin said. “But moving forward we’re going to continue to be aggressive to put all the information out there.”
GAO’s investigation examined OMB’s compliance with the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which mandated the creation of a public database of federal awards data. Designed to increase transparency and accountability in the contracting process, the legislation required OMB to establish USAspending.gov by Jan. 1, 2008.
Allison said the Obama administration has an opportunity to execute transparency initiatives better than previous leadership, but this will require better agency compliance and improved openness.
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