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Clearspending for Contracting? Not Until Our Overdue FOIA Request Is Fulfilled

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Last fall, we conducted a data quality analysis of the grants data present in USASpending.gov. We called the project Clearspending. Basically, we used another source of government data that provided annual spending estimates for each grant program and compared it with the grant totals for each program in USASpending.gov to see how close they were. We also looked to see if spending was reported completely, and on time (full methodology here). We found nearly $1.3 trillion worth of spending that either didn't match with the other government data, was late, or incompletely reported.

That's a lot of money.

The project got some attention both at the Gov 2.0 Summit later that year, a House Oversight Committee hearing several weeks ago and a House Energy and Commerce hearing last week. The obvious follow-up question that we get all the time is "Where is Clearspending for Contracting?". Well, what we're missing is another dataset to use for comparison with the contracts data in USASpending.gov. It's difficult to find annual estimates for each agency broken down by contract spending, that isn't from the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), which is the feeder system for USASpending.gov. However, in the course of our research, we did find that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has required agencies to submit to them something called an "FPDS Data Quality Report", since at least FY 2008. The requirement is detailed in this OMB memo and includes a template for the data quality report.

The template in the report requires the senior procurement executive from each agency to certify the total dollar amount spent on contracts for that fiscal year and what percentage of this dollar amount is present in FPDS. They also must describe their processes for measuring and improving data quality. Essentially, it's an internal (read private) document that describes the quality of a public contract spending database. We asked OMB politely for this information and were flatly denied. Our next step was to file a FOIA request for the data. We filed the request and it was received on September 29, 2010. Today is May 12th, 2011, and we still don't have it. It hasn't been denied, it just hasn't been fulfilled. This far exceeds the statutory requirement for fulfilling FOIA requests, and runs counter to the administration's pledge to increase transparency, specifically through bettering the FOIA process.

These reports provide a clear description of the usefulness and reliability of the contract data available in USASpending.gov, a website created entirely to disclose spending data to the public. Withholding these reports is violating the spirit of the law that created USASpending.gov, if not the letter.