Experts say better spending data is the key to transparency

Improving the quality of publicly available federal spending data is vital to government transparency, according to experts at a House Oversight Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Witnesses argued publishing accurate government spending data online where it can be freely accessed and reused by members of the public is the true meaning of transparency in the digital age.

"Information cannot be considered public if it is available only inside a government building, during limited hours or for a fee," said Sunlight Foundation executive director Ellen Miller in her prepared remarks.

"In the 21st century, information is properly described as "public" only if it is available online, for free, in some kind of reasonably parse-able format."

However, the government's previous attempt to publish spending data online via has drawn heavy criticism from Miller and other transparency advocates due to the poor accuracy of the published data.

USASpending was licensed from the site built by OMB Watch and funded by Sunlight. OMB Watch director of federal fiscal policy Craig Jennings said the site's failings were due to a lack of adequate resources and the poor quality of agency-reported spending data.

Jennings said his organization had always known the quality of the agency spending data was poor and argued that the most accurate data on federal spending comes from the Treasury Department, which holds the nation's checkbook.

He said Treasury data on outlays would be far more accurate than the currently used agency data on obligations and encouraged chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to include a provision on the issue in his new transparency legislation unveiled Monday.

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) would create a single platform for publishing all government spending data along with an independent body to oversee the collection and publication of that data.

"Despite the availability of technology to track federal spending and program performance, the existing platforms utilized by government agencies do not facilitate an accurate, accessible reporting of information to taxpayers," Issa said.

"Moreover, the multiple and incongruent formats of various federal spending databases make comparison and analysis almost impossible, even to those with advanced degrees in accounting. There is a better way," Issa said.

The Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board (FAST) would be based heavily on the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which has been held up as a model of transparency and credited with preventing fraud and abuse in connection to the 2009 Recovery Act.

Recovery Board chairman Earl Devaney used his opening remarks to outline a number of factors that helped the board prevent fraud and abuse, including tight deadlines that compelled agencies to act.

Devaney argued that rather than relying on agencies to report data on federal spending, a request that typically meets bureaucratic resistance, the government should require recipients of federal funds such as grants or loans to report that data themselves.

The Recovery Board created a web-based platform where recipients enter spending information on a quarterly basis. Agencies are then in charge of data quality and correcting errors, but recipients can also submit automatic requests to correct erroneous data.

"Agencies are still invested in the quality assurance of the data, but now they need not employ legions of data entry personnel in the name of transparency," Devaney said.

"Any future legislation should recognize this potential cost savings and call for the migration of reporting from agencies to recipients."

Miller pointed the finger for the failure of previous transparency efforts at the Office of Management and Budget, which she said is not fit for the task of overseeing federal transparency because of the agency's close political ties to whoever is currently in the White House.

"This problem is not confined to spending transparency. Information policy, ethics oversight, and lobbying disclosure policies, all of which OMB administers to one degree or another, suffer from similarly counterproductive incentives — where OMB’s close identification with the President conflicts with the need to be a neutral enforcer," Miller said.

"This is not to say that (this, or any) OMB has unduly politicized their involvement in these issues, but simply that it may be structurally incapable of pursuing these goals in the best way possible," she said.

The White House unveiled its own proposal to cut in half the number of federal websites on Monday as part of a sweeping cost-cutting program. President Obama signed an executive order creating a spending transparency board that will produce recommendations in six months.

Issa has indicated that he and the Obama administration are on the same page regarding federal transparency reform, increasing the likelihood of legislation passing Congress this session.