Click on the tabs below to explore Obligation-Level Reporting vs. Program-Level Reporting sequences. PDF version of Infographic
  1. 0 Making Sense of the Federal Checkbook
  2. Expand 1 Agencies Receive Budget Authority

    For our purposes, the process begins when an agency is given budget authority — the power to spend some money.

  3. Expand 2 Agencies Are Divided Into Programs

    The agency's budget is organized into programs, which spend money in order to achieve some particular goal.

  4. Expand 3 Programs Spend Money Through Obligations

    That spending takes the form of awards to specific recipients. These awards can take different forms, like grants, or contracts, or loans. The umbrella term for all of these is obligations. An obligation means that although the government may not yet have actually cut a check, the money is committed and can't be spent on something else.

  5. Expand 4 Obligations Become Disbursements

    Eventually, these obligations are sent to Treasury, which sends actual payments to the recipients. At this point the obligations become disbursements. Unfortunately, details about this process aren't available to the public in a useful form.

  6. Expand 5 Obligation-Level Reporting

    Fortunately, there are other systems for tracking this spending. FAADS-PLUS tracks grants, loans, loan guarantees and insurance. FPDS-NG tracks contracts. Both are run by the Office of Management and Budget. Together, they provide the data that appears on USASpending.gov. Agencies report their obligations to these systems on a continuous basis.

  7. Expand 6 Program-Level Reporting

    Agencies also report information on the program level. Once a year they submit information about grant programs to the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, which is maintained by the General Services Administration. The CFDA includes information about each program's purpose, who is eligible to participate in the program, and an estimate of the program's total obligations.

  8. Expand 7 Measuring Accuracy

    In theory, we should be able to add up the grant information reported to FAADS and compare the total against the number that's reported to CFDA. In practice, things don't always work that well.

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