’s Systemic Failure


The new— which we’ve written about and even nearly bid on— has certainly taken the government huge steps forward in terms of disclosing information, but it is not without controversy. The press is questioning the program, pointing to wasteful spending or bad data. The White House fired back with a “reality check”(their words) saying that few of the reports have gone through the “extensive three-week review” and that the data might be particularly misleading at this point.

In short what’s happened is that the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board has launched a website, asked citizens to report waste fraud and abuse on that website, and filled it full of data that they knew was either questionable or blatantly inaccurate. This doesn’t sound productive for either the recipients of the funds, the government or the citizens seeking to monitor this spending. What’s the point of reporting waste, fraud or abuse if none of the data is correct? Some of the more glaring errors are now being corrected but at significant political cost to the administration. Unfortunately, we’re still not confident that the data will be good enough for the public to meaningfully contribute to the search for waste or fraud.

It’s great that the government is taking this review seriously. When Sunlight met with the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (as part of our work with the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery) at the beginning of the fall, they said outright that they were going to work on “data integrity” but not “data quality” — that would be left up to the reporting recipients and agencies. We were left worried that nobody would ultimately take responsibility for what was reported. It sounds like the RAT Board has realized that it isn’t enough to publish bad data and call their job done.

No amount of technology can improve the quality of data issue if there’s thousands of people inserting data. You’re going to get mis-reported data, erroneous data, and yes, waste, fraud and abuse. What’s worse, it’ll all look the same.

In the short term, there are systemic things that the Recovery board can do to highlight the problem and work toward solving it:

  1. Instead of couching the data posted as “not being entirely accurate,” make that the point— get in front of it and put the data in a “public review” category. Deliberately ask the public for feedback and to point out the data in there could be inaccurate. The only way to solve the problem today is to have a different set of thousands of other people reviewing the data.
  2. Make a “report bad data” button on the website that makes it easier for the people auditing the data at various agencies to see where data errors should happen. Instead of publishing the data directly, ask citizens and the media to spot bad data and report it back in.
  3. After that data has been reported back in, require the reporters of the data (or at least the agencies who are responsible for it) to review the data — and add consequences for those who fail to do so, or who approve data that’s later shown to be faulty (this is likely beyond what the RAT Board can do — at some point OMB needs to get serious about this problem).
  4. Keep an agency-by-agency tally of bad-data reports and make it public and in real time. Report this as a percentage of data reported so there’s no incentive to report no data to game the system.

The point is to seal the feedback loop and make it so the consequences of reporting bad data— whether it be intentional or otherwise, is the creation of more cost on the recipient of the funds. While human disclosure may be a burden, erroneous disclosure should trigger a heavier burden to improve accuracy.

I commend the government from publishing data and giving people early access to it. Great work— the sooner data can get out to the public, the better. Even if that means the data is inaccurate to start out with. But the lesson learned is, you have to be over explicit about the accuracy of the data, and invite people to not only report waste fraud and abuse but also data that is less than perfect. Solid data doesn’t happen when only part of the chain is responsible for the accuracy of the data, but the whole chain is responsible for it. Including the people consuming it.