Overall Poor Quality

To measure the usefulness of USASpending.gov, we used three metrics: consistency, completeness, and timeliness. These metrics work in concert to test whether citizens have accurate spending information when they need it. Government spending occurs continually, so spending data loses value over time. Thus spending should be reported as soon as possible. Yet inaccurate data is of little use, no matter how timely it is.

Programs that misreport less than 50% of their spending, across all three metrics, are considered good and colored green in the graph. It's immediately clear that most programs are not good at reporting their spending.

See our list of the best-reporting programs »
2010 Programs with Good Reporting
  • Lighter color blockGood
  • Darker color blockPoor

Still Inconsistent

To determine a program's consistency, we compare what government agencies report to USASpending.gov against the obligations reported in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA). Discrepancies between these two systems hinder a citizen's ability to use these tools to ensure accountability in federal spending. Furthermore, the ability to debate the merits of individual assistance programs relies on our ability to agree on how much those programs cost. How can outside observers agree on these costs if those spending the money seemingly cannot agree with themselves?

The proportion of programs that report their spending consistently between USASpenging.gov and CFDA has not improved from 2008 to 2010. The lack of enforcement of the current law has weakened the incentive for agencies or programs to accurately report their spending. This trend is likely to hold until such an incentive is introduced.

2010 Program Consistency
Fiscal Year Consistent Programs
200835%
200934%
201033%

Incomplete

Completing paper work is usually a necessary step in applying for assistance from the government. If you fail to completely fill out the forms, you usually don't get assistance. Yet when it comes to USASpending.gov, the government doesn't subject itself to that same level of scrutiny. While the law requires certain fields in the USASpending.gov data to be completely filled out, most are not. Indeed 87% of all reported 2010 spending is lacking some required information.

USASpending.gov has been described as the nation's checkbook. In order to balance a checkbook you must have a minimum set of information about each transaction. You need to know how much money was transferred, who received the money, and when the transaction took place. The fields required by USASpending.gov are meant to allow such a balancing. However, our results show that this is not possible with most of the records in USASpending.gov.

2010 Incompletely Reported Spending
13%
87%
  • Lighter color block Complete
  • Darker color block Incomplete

Punctual

There has been considerable improvement from 2008 to 2010 in our timeliness metric. In fact, 2010 marks the first time the average program reporting lag was within the 30 day requirement. The latest average is 27 days, which is down nearly 50% from 51 days in 2008.

Fiscal Year Average Reporting Lag
200851 days
200958 days
201027 days

More impressive is the reversal of the proportion of spending reported on-time (see chart at right). In 2010, 87% of spending was reported on-time while in 2008 that same proportion was reported late.

Unfortunately the value of this on-time reporting is ultimately diminished by the inconsistency and incompleteness of the data reported.

Proportion of Spending Reported On-Time
2008
  • Lighter color block 13.32% On-time
  • Darker color block 86.68% Tardy
2009
  • Lighter color block 29.49% On-time
  • Darker color block 70.51% Tardy
2010
  • Lighter color block 87.2% On-time
  • Darker color block 12.8% Tardy