GAO confirms USASpending data quality problems


The Government Accountability Office (GAO) just confirmed something that we’ve been saying for years: Grant and loan data available through is terrible.

A new report, entitled Data Transparency: Oversight Needed to Address Underreporting and Inconsistencies on Federal Award Website, looks at spending data reported under the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA). What the GAO found is not encouraging; it isn’t surprising either.

The GAO compared data available on USASpending with agency records and found significant misreporting and data quality problems related to assistance awards (grants and loans). This inconsistent reporting, to the tune of $619 billion in fiscal year 2012 as well as the other findings, track closely with our Clearspending project, which looked at similar data. Clearspending found inconsistent reporting of over $500 billion in FY2009, $800 billion in FY2010 and $900 billion in FY2011.

The GAO found that agencies simply failed to file required information for 342 programs. In many other cases, the information filed did not match up with the agency’s own records. In fact, the GAO estimates that only between 2-to-7 percent of the awards in USASpending are fully consistent with agency records across the 21 data elements that they examined.

The report isn’t all bad news, however. It appears that agencies are doing a decent job reporting required information on contracts.

USASpending is the primary way for the public to access information about government spending. As long as the data is bad, we cannot fully embrace a system designed to improve oversight and empower taxpayers.

Fortunately, we don’t just know the data is bad, we know how to fix it. Proper implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, should solve some of these problems by creating a more standardized system for reporting this information and, hopefully, ensuring that agencies report accurate data to USASpending. Having accurate access to this data will boost oversight and allow for improved decision making about government spending.