We're much obliged to Ari Hoffnung, Senior Adviser at Coalition member Socrata, Inc., for this blog post. Socrata helps public sector organizations improve transparency, citizen service, and data-driven decision-making. Ari is a national leader in promoting financial transparency and previously served as the New York City Deputy Comptroller for Budget & Public Affairs. He was also the driving force behind the award-winning Checkbook NYC website.
Earlier this month a report (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-476) from the Government Accountability Office found that the USASpending.gov website was missing more money than the combined net worth of the Top 10 people featured on this year’s Forbes Billionaires list (http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/).
In the words of the GAO:
"Although agencies generally reported required contract information, they did not properly report information on assistance awards (e.g., grants or loans), totaling approximately $619 billion in fiscal year 2012."
On one hand, $619 billion is a lot of money to be missing by anyone’s standards, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and the Koch brothers. On the other hand, there are several reasons why I would not loose sleep over the GAO’s findings.
First and foremost, this report is a good reminder that we live in a democracy strong enough to have an independent watchdog like the GAO (http://www.gao.gov/about/), with the freedom to investigate how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. I'm not saying our democracy is perfect, but I feel fortunate to live in a country where the government's overall lack of financial transparency can be criticized by a government-funded entity.
Second, the report reinforces the shortcomings of the current USASpending.gov website in the areas of data consistency and completeness that have been identified by advocates like those from the Sunlight Foundation’s clearspending.org project.
Finally, the biggest silver lining in this report is that many of the problems cited by the GAO will be addressed by the implementation of the recently passed DATA Act (http://www.datacoalition.com/issues/data-act.html), which requires the standardization of spending data throughout the federal government.
As someone who has been working on financial transparency for the lion share of the past five years, I think the federal government ought to consider following in the footsteps of the Big Apple and make payments data the first priority of a revamped USASpending.gov website.
In New York City, when we first launched our Checkbook NYC financial transparency website (http://www.checkbooknyc.com/spending_landing/yeartype/B/year/116) that tracks our $70 billion+ annual budget; we decided to do so with payment data because while most taxpayers may not understand the ins and outs of government budgets, virtually all taxpayers understand what it means to make payments.
Think about it. Anyone with a checkbook, debit card, or even just a few bucks in their pocket understands what it means when cash leaves their account (or pocket) – whether it's paying the rent by check, using a debit card to buy groceries, or spending a few dollars to buy a cup of coffee.