Using DATA to Shine the Light on Federal Spending

thumbnail_itUnderstanding how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars is a daunting task. In fiscal year 2013 alone, the federal government spent $3.5 trillion. In May, Congress unanimously passed and the President signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA), which increases accountability and transparency of federal spending. The act requires several changes that will shed more light on how federal dollars are used.

Accountability and transparency of federal spending is important to:

  • Understand the cost of federal programs, who they are serving, and where funds are going. In an April hearing on overlap and duplication of federal programs, the Comptroller General testified on the importance of standardizing spending data so information could be compared across federal agencies.

  • Data CoverIdentify potential fraud, waste, or abuse of federal funds. The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board uses spending data to do just that. Specifically, the Recovery Board uses advanced data analysis techniques to identify potential fraud and errors before and after payments are made. In January 2013, we co-hosted a forum alongside the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to explore using data analytics to help identify fraud, waste, and abuse in government. To address these and other issues related to coordination and data sharing, we formed the Government Data Sharing Community of Practice.

One significant example of DATA’s effects is how it will improve the information reported on USAspending.gov, the government’s source for reporting grant and contract awards. Our work in 2010 showed that agencies’ data on contracts, grants, loans, and other awards in USAspending.gov needed to be more accurate and complete. We reported in 2013 that standardizing spending information across the federal government, as DATA requires, will increase the usefulness of that information. Going forward, DATA includes a role for agencies’ Inspectors General and GAO to evaluate and report on the accuracy and completeness of spending data collected with the new data standards.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Chris Mihm at mihmj@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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