Clearspending. That’s What We Need.

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As I noted in my speech yesterday at the Gov2.0 Summit, Gov2.0 has become a popular catchphrase in Washington today and no organization has been more excited about its potential when it comes to data transparency than the Sunlight Foundation. But now, some 20 months since President Obama made his initial commitment to technology and transparency, we have numerous concerns. One of the core examples that I used was USASpending.gov, which President Obama championed into law when he was in the Senate, along with Sen. Tom Coburn, in 2007.

USASpending was created to provide the public with information about how the federal government spends our tax dollars. It was launched nearly three years ago and has already gone through three redesigns, each one flashier than the next. The site is pretty impressive graphics-wise, but unfortunately the data provided is full of inaccuracies, according to Clearspending, a new Sunlight site that tracks and illustrates just how broken the data is. We were deliberate in our approach when conducting this analysis, and we hope that by giving these problems the light of day, it might actually help get them fixed.

Think of Clearspending.com as a kind of scorecard that analyzes how well U.S. government agencies are reporting their spending data on USASpending.gov.

What Sunlight has found, and Clearspending shows in great detail, is that just under* $1.3 trillion in federal reporting data from 2009 is unreliable. The data inaccuracies we uncovered account for 70 percent of the total $1.9 trillion in government spending data reported in that year. Some of the numbers are too big, some are too small and some are missing completely, while other spending data entries don’t have the detail that’s required or were reported months later than the law demands.

When it comes to making data available, it has to be accurate. Federal agencies need to focus first on the quality of data they collect. If the data is unreliable, then the quality of websites they release — or the tools built upon it  — is irrelevant.

The government has known about the problems we’ve illustrated on Clearspending, and they say they’re working to fix it. But instead we have only gotten a series of redesigned websites, each one with data just as unreliable as the one before it.

There’s a tremendous amount of work left to do before Gov2.0 becomes a reality. These are not easy tasks, and certainly not glamorous ones. But these are the types of challenges that we must undertake if the promise of Gov2.0 is going to be realized.

*We updated this number – at launch it was just north of $1.3 trillion. You can see why here.

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