Key Findings from the GAO Data Transparency Report, and Its Impact on Open Data

GAO Data TransparencyIn August 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on government transparency titled, Data Transparency: Oversight Needed to Address Underreporting and Inconsistencies on Federal Award Website.

GAO conducted this study—and released the subsequent report—in an effort to assess the success of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (enacted in 2006), which established USASpending.gov.

The study set out to determine the extent to which agencies report required award data and the accuracy of the website.

Here are three key findings from the report.

1. Gaps Exist Between OMB Guidance and Agency Execution

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published Uniform Grants Guidance in January 2014 to simplify agency reporting to USASpending.gov. The guidance addresses high-level reporting requirements, such as collection methods and acceptable data formats.

However, despite OMB’s efforts to facilitate accurate reporting, the GAO Report found that some agencies are still unclear on processes and procedures. 

A few agencies claimed reporting exemptions, citing non-appropriated funds; however, gaps in OMB Uniform Grants Guidance make it unclear as to whether this is permissible. One agency cited foreign recipients as a reason for an inability to report; yet OMB provides clear direction on how to report on such awards.

Takeaway: OMB must take further action to clarify guidance and close gaps that leave reporting up to interpretation. Also, agencies must better acquaint themselves with new reporting requirements—it is on them to comply with new standards.

2. Reporting is Done in Parts, Not as a Whole.

The GAO report found that, “…agencies generally reported contracts, but many assistance programs were not reported.” As a result, nearly $619 billion in awards went unreported for fiscal year 2012. Only 64% of the 2,183 federal assistance programs listed reported federal funding or program cost information.

What’s more, agencies provided partial data. Some reported on at least one award, but did not properly report associated data—leaving incomplete information. In total, 342 programs had not been properly reported on for fiscal year 2012. Agency officials cited four reasons why:

  1. Technical issues
  2. Award aggregation
  3. Unclear understanding of reporting requirements
  4. Lack of internal oversight

Takeaway: OMB must develop and enforce a process to ensure agencies report required award information, as well as provide assistance in overcoming the four reasons for improperly reported awards.

3. USASpending.gov Data is Inconsistent

Information found on USASpending.gov is inconsistent with that contained in agency records or other authoritative sources. Of the awards that the GAO report surveyed, it is estimated that only two-to-seven percent match the information held by their respective agencies. Reasons for inconsistencies include: 

  • Unclear reporting requirements

  • Weakness in OMB guidance on data validation
  • Incomplete oversight of agency reporting processes
  • Display format on USASpending.gov
  • Access to vendor-provided data

Takeaway: Until data and reporting inconsistences are addressed and fixed, USASpending.gov data will be inaccurate, and not useful to parties looking to utilize it.

The GAO report sheds light on processes that have worked and those that still need improvement, providing recommendations for agencies and OMB alike.

Download the full report here: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-476

How are you affected by the outcomes of this report? Share your thoughts in the comments below.