Watchdog works with agency to make feds’ largest database

In the upside-down world of Washington politics, the watched is now working with the watcher.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the thorn in its side, OMB Watch, are holding meetings to develop the government’s largest database; all federal spending will be searchable and available online for the public by Jan. 1, 2008, per the agency’s schedule.

“We are working hand and glove on this with OMB Watch,” said Robert Shea, OMB’s associate director for management. “It has been extremely odd, and you can quote me on that.”

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, seconded that. “I am a keen fan of criticizing OMB, but there is nothing to criticize so far. In fairness, with the steps they are taking, they deserve credit.”

Along with several other watchdog groups and a coalition of bloggers known as Porkbusters, OMB Watch campaigned for the database’s creation by pushing for the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. Sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the bill plans to open up the federal government’s checkbook to greater scrutiny.

OMB released the database’s Internet forerunner, federalspending.gov, last month. The agency has been soliciting comments from the public on how best to implement the law as well as collecting data from the various agencies across the federal government.

In the interim, OMB is taking tips from its watchdog. OMB Watch posted its own online database, fedspending.org, in October 2006, allowing the public to search for government contracts and grants as well as to sum up figures.

“Like many of the other agencies, OMB has been impressed in what we did and wants to know how we did it,” said Bass.
OMB Watch wrote to the agency director, Rob Portman, in December 2006, highlighting its own database. “We got a call soon after that,” said Bass, and the meetings between the two were initiated.

“The beauty of Fedspending.org is they have shown that not only does OMB have to do this, but they can do this, and they can do it better than anything the government has produced to date,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, another watchdog group that advocated for the database.

“The value they bring is that they have done this,” said Shea. “The data available at Fedspending.org, though, is not yet as comprehensive as required by the act.”

The Coburn-Obama bill will require OMB to update its government data every 30 days, a massive task never before undertaken. “We need to improve the timeliness and the accuracy of the data,” said Shea.

Right now, said Bass, his group’s own database is only updated every six months and would not be in compliance with the act.

OMB Watch and OMB have crossed swords many time in the past. The watchdog group was originally founded in 1983 to monitor just the agency and “lift the veil of secrecy” from its doings, according to its website, but has since expanded its operations to cover the federal budget, taxation, and regulatory policy.

“We do have different views,” said Shea, taking note of the watchdog’s criticisms of OMB’s past initiatives. “They were wrong on that, but right on this.”

With OMB forging ahead, one concern for Bass and others is the data’s overall quality.

“What is a consequence of sloppy data is the public may have the wrong information on who the top 10 contractors in the country are or how much money is going to a congressional district,” said Bass.

“Being able to easily manipulate [the data] is like learning Sanskrit. It is rife with errors,” added Ellis.

“Part of the downside is it is so large and the form it is released in makes it so difficult for the public to use,” said Jeff Porter, database library director for Investigative Reporters & Editors Inc.

Porter, however, has high hopes for the level of detail the government plans to delve into. “The exciting part on the government’s side is if they include the capability to find subcontracts and subgrants,” said Porter.

OMB is scheduled to hit that benchmark by Jan.1, 2009. Until then, OMB Watch and OMB plan to stay in touch.

“It is safe to say it is a bit unusual,” said Bass. “This town has no permanent allies and no permanent enemies, so we are happy to work on this with OMB.”

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