Yesterday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released agency responses to a survey on agencies’ internal financial management systems. We’ve been curious to peek behind this curtain for a while, considering the public version of these systems, USASpending.gov, has proven to be quite error-prone. Agencies were asked a number of questions, ranging from what software they use, to how their internal systems interact with USASpending.gov. You can view the responses on the Oversight Committee website, or on Sunlight’s scribd account. The headline is not surprising. Most agencies use antiquated and fractured systems, requiring manual data entry between systems, which almost always results in errors.
We’re excited to have this inside look, just as we’re putting the finishing touches on an updated version of Clearspending, a project we released last year that assessed the data quality of USASpending.gov. We’ve always wondered how the flow of data to USASpending.gov compares to the reporting of accounting data that happens within the agencies. It’s interesting to read through these responses and compare them to our new results. For instance, of all the grant programs we’ve found that report very well, 41% of them are in the Department of Education. If you read the survey responses from the Department of Education, you’ll notice a couple of key things.
First, while there are several systems working in concert that each perform different functions (grant reporting vs contract reporting vs loan reporting), these same systems are used throughout the entire department. There aren’t separate grant reporting systems within each program office. Secondly, ED describes their platform as “end to end grants management”, including support for “…intake of applications, peer review, award, payment, performance monitoring, and final closeout of the grant award”. We’ve always been of the mind that this kind of grants management should be available for the entire federal government*. Instead, we have Grants.gov for grant applications (rife with problems, according to the GAO), some black box inside the respective agency that processes the grant, and then sometimes, it gets reported to USASpending.gov. In the end, the entire federal government should have an end to end reporting system like this, with certain points in the reporting stream being automatically exposed to the public via a web interface. Public reporting of spending shouldn’t be an afterthought — it should be tightly integrated into the agency workflow as much as possible.
For anyone interested in how the federal government keeps track of what they’re spending, I encourage you to read through these reports. As a programmer, the number of times I see “mainframe” mentioned is scary. If the DATA act does pass, the newly created FAST board would do well to study these reports and find key indicators of reporting success and failure.
*In the past we’ve described problems with the Department of Educations’s reporting of loan data. We still believe there is a systemic misinterpretation of the guidance on loan reporting, causing student loans to sum to the trillions in the USASpending.gov data. However, the comments in this post relate exclusively to grant data.