Federal Spending Transparency: Opportunities Exist to Further Improve the Information Available on USAspending.gov
To promote transparency in federal government spending, the Department of the Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget are responsible for ensuring that federal spending information reported by federal agencies and published on USAspending.gov is accurate and complete.
Treasury and OMB have made progress on validating the data they receive from agencies but they could improve how they report it online. For example, the website doesn't always disclose issues related to the quality of the data, such as information that isn't included in the data that an agency reports.
Our 9 recommendations address these and other issues.
What GAO Found
The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) requires federal agencies to submit spending data for presentation on USAspending.gov. This public-facing website promotes federal spending transparency. Information displayed on USAspending.gov is sourced from agency financial systems and external government-wide reporting systems. GAO found that Treasury took additional steps to disclose known data limitations on USAspending.gov. GAO also identified some opportunities to further enhance the quality of the data displayed on the website and the business application controls that process the data.
- Timeliness. Most agencies submitted their data files by the deadlines established by Treasury. For the period ending March 31, 2021, 83 of 101 agencies submitted their data files on time.
- Completeness. Of the 101 agencies that submitted data for the period ending March 31, 2021, 19 did not include data in the required file that links budget and award information needed to effectively track federal spending.
- Accuracy. Data displayed on selected USAspending.gov web pages were largely consistent with agency-certified data, the USAspending.gov database, data displayed on other USAspending.gov web pages and data available for download. However, Treasury should help ensure that users of the data are able to distinguish whether information on award description describes the purpose of the base award or the purpose of a transaction or modification.
- Business process controls. Treasury could strengthen its business process controls to prevent or detect incomplete or inaccurate data displayed on USAspending.gov. For example, Treasury did not have a process to periodically inform agencies of unlinked data to help them reconcile and resolve data linkage differences, and the unique award key did not always result in a complete and accurate display of financial assistance award information.
- Implementation and use of data standards. Some data elements displayed on USAspending.gov were inconsistent with the established data standards. For example, agencies were required to report program activity information included in the program and financing schedules of the annual budget of the federal government. However, for the reporting period ending March 31, 2021, GAO found that hundreds of billions of dollars in obligations were reported with a program activity of “Unknown/Other.”
- Disclosure of known data limitations. Treasury disclosed known data limitations by adding an Agency Submission Statistics web page in response to user feedback requesting greater transparency into the completeness of agency data available on the website. However, Treasury does not disclose the effects of changes to reporting standards over time. In addition, disclosures on the linkage of financial and award information are unclear.
- Data governance. Agencies have made progress completing the data governance milestones outlined in the Federal Data Strategy 2020 Action Plan. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently issued the 2021 Action Plan and is considering future efforts to monitor agency progress.
USAspending.gov integrates data from many sources, including data that agencies submit and certify, and data from government-wide reporting systems (see figure). Agencies are required to submit seven data files, sourced from agency financial management systems and government-wide reporting systems, either monthly or quarterly. As seen below, agencies submit these files to Treasury's DATA Act Broker (broker)—the system that collects and validates agency data—and attest to or certify the accuracy of the seven data files. The broker also obtains award and subaward data and information from government-wide reporting systems each evening to update USAspending.gov. This nightly update process also integrates new agency-certified data files after each monthly or quarterly submission due date. Additional data from other external sources is periodically updated in the broker and reflected on USAspending.gov.
Process Overview and Sources of Data Displayed on USAspending.gov
Why GAO Did This Study
The DATA Act requires disclosure of federal agency expenditures and linking of agency spending information to federal program activities so that both policymakers and the public can more effectively track federal spending. The act also requires OMB and Treasury to establish data standards to provide consistent, reliable, and searchable government-wide spending data. The DATA Act contains a provision for GAO to report on the quality of the data. This is the third in a series of three reports on data quality.
This report examines (1) the timeliness, completeness, and accuracy of the data displayed on USAspending.gov; (2) business process controls over the data; (3) the implementation and use of data standards; (4) the disclosure of known data quality limitations; and (5) the status of agency efforts to develop a data governance structure over DATA Act reporting. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed data from USAspending.gov, reviewed agency documents, and interviewed agency officials.
GAO is making two recommendations to OMB to ensure consistent use of data standards and seven recommendations to Treasury to improve business process controls, implementation and use of data standards, and the disclosure of known data limitations. OMB and Treasury generally agreed with our recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of the Treasury||The Secretary of the Treasury should take steps to help ensure that users are able to distinguish whether an award description describes the purpose of the base award or the purpose of a transaction or modification to the award on USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 1)||
Treasury agreed with this recommendation. In July 2022, Treasury issued release notes for updates made to USAspending.gov that shows they updated various USAspending.gov web pages with two new award descriptions headers -- Base Transaction Description and Transaction Description -- to more clearly delineate when an award description describes the original purpose of the award or a subsequent transaction or modification. These additional labels should improve a user's understanding of the award information displayed on USAspending.gov, and enhance the comparability of these data over time.
|Department of the Treasury||The Secretary of the Treasury should design and implement a process to periodically inform agencies about unlinked data to help agencies reconcile and resolve data linkage differences between transaction and submission data on USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 2)||
As of July 2022, Treasury is working on a process to address this recommendation, including sending a quarterly report to agencies on the status of their unlinked awards and updating the functionality of the USASpending.gov Agency Submission Statistics Page (ASSP) so that it will allow agencies to quickly download a list of all unlinked awards. Fully implementing these new procedures will be responsive to our recommendation. We will continue to monitor Treasury's progress toward implementing this recommendation.
|Department of the Treasury||The Secretary of the Treasury should ensure that identifiers and database keys (e.g., unique award key) used for financial assistance awards result in display outputs on USAspending.gov that are accurate and complete. (Recommendation 3)||
Treasury agreed with this recommendation. In June 2022, Treasury notified agencies that, given the design of the unique award key, changing the Awarding Sub Tier Agency Code during the life of a financial assistance award would result in transactions for the same award displayed as separate awards on USAspending.gov. Treasury specified that, in order for these financial assistance award transactions to be displayed together, agencies would need to ensure that all transactions under the award have the same Awarding Sub Tier Agency Code. However, to implement this recommendation, Treasury needs to ensure that when agencies accurately report information -- such as transactions for one award with different Awarding Sub Tier Agencies -- the unique award key design properly displays information on USAspending.gov. We will continue to monitor Treasury's efforts to implement this recommendation
|Department of the Treasury||The Secretary of the Treasury should ensure that the department's documented DATA Act and USAspending.gov guidance related to the maximum number of characters for procurement and financial assistance award descriptions is consistent with established policy. (Recommendation 4)||
In June 2022, Treasury revised its guidance to update the number of characters required for award descriptions to be consistent with established policy. Based on our review of the revised guidance, we determined this action meets the recommendation.
|Office of Management and Budget||The Director of OMB, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Treasury, should ensure that their policies, guidance, and procedures related to DATA Act and USAspending.gov (e.g., maximum number of characters for award descriptions) are consistent with each other. (Recommendation 5)||
OMB concurs with this recommendation. In July 2022 OMB told us that work with Treasury is ongoing to ensure the display and technical standards for reporting information on USAspending.gov is consistent with FFATA and DATA Act statutory, regulatory, and policy guidance. We will continue to monitor OMB's progress toward implementing this recommendation.
|Department of the Treasury||The Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Director of OMB, should disclose on USAspending.gov that it does not validate the data it collects from external government-wide reporting systems (e.g., FPDS) and displays on USAspending.gov and, therefore, the imported data may not always align with the data standards, definitions, and requirements established in the OMB and Treasury guidance. (Recommendation 6)||
In July 2022, Treasury officials told us that they plan to implement this recommendation in the coming months, as part of a new data limitation disclosure module. We will continue to monitor Treasury efforts to implement this recommendation.
|Office of Management and Budget||The Director of OMB, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Treasury, should develop and implement a process to help ensure that disallowed program activities are not included in its list of program activity and accounts combinations used for validating DATA Act submissions to USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 7)||
OMB concurred with this recommendation. In July 2022, OMB told us that they will continue to review the quality of program activity submissions as part of their larger effort to develop a federal program inventory. We will continue to monitor OMB's progress towards implementing this recommendation.
|Department of the Treasury||The Secretary of the Treasury should disclose on USAspending.gov that changes in the data submission and reporting guidance and requirements over time may affect the completeness, consistency, and quality of specific data elements. (Recommendation 8)||
As of July 2022, Treasury officials told us that they plan to implement this recommendation in the coming months, as part of a new data limitation disclosure module. We will continue to monitor Treasury's efforts to implement this recommendation.
|Department of the Treasury||The Secretary of the Treasury should disclose on USAspending.gov web pages that display information on individual awards when an award is unlinked and why federal account information is unavailable for that award. (Recommendation 9)||
Treasury agreed with this recommendation. In July 2022, Treasury issued release notes for updates made to USAspending.gov that shows they added new "Unlinked Award" identifiers and tooltips to Award profile pages for unlinked awards to identify unlinked awards and provide information on why federal account information is unavailable for that award. Prominently disclosing information on unlinked awards should help users of the data better understand the extent to which the data are timely, complete, accurate, and comparable over time.