The DATA Act: Checking in on Spending Transparency

Federal agencies spend over $4 trillion a year. But how that money is spent isn’t always easy to track.

That’s one reason why Congress passed the DATA Act—requiring agencies not only to publicly report spending data on USAspending.gov, but also to report high-quality data, so that legislators, government officials, and the public can better understand and compare how taxpayer money is used.

We just completed our second review of the quality—i.e., timeliness, completeness, and accuracy—of these data. Today’s WatchBlog shares some of what we found.

USAspending.gov photo

Data quality is better, but there is still room for improvement

We found that, overall, data quality has improved since our 2017 review. More agencies reported data on USAspending.gov and there were fewer inaccuracies.

The number of accurately reported data elements increased from 2017 to 2018
The number of accurately reported data elements increased from 2017 to 2018

While the improvements are encouraging, there is still room for progress. For example, 2 important data elements were reported improperly at least 10% of the time – Award Description and Primary Place of Performance Address. These elements are essential for spending transparency because they tell how and where federal money was spent.

Issues with these data elements were generally due to agencies’ having difficulty interpreting or following reporting standards correctly. For example, some agencies had difficulty reporting the Primary Place of Performance Address for grants that have multiple sub-recipients in different locations. Other agencies used technical jargon in their award descriptions, making the purpose of the award hard to understand.

Agencies are taking steps to standardize the way they report data, which could help address these data quality issues. However, OMB still needs to clarify definitions and provide additional guidance for certain data standards to help ensure agencies submit more consistent data, as we recommended in our 2017 review and reiterated again in this 2019 review.

Full disclosure

Along with improving data quality, the DATA Act seeks to improve federal data transparency. We found that 2 important data limitations are not fully transparent on USAspending.gov:

  1. Department of Defense procurement data isn’t shown on the website until 90 days after the agency reports it.
  2. The location of Medicare grants show the payment processing center, rather than the state or county of residence of the beneficiaries.

This lack of disclosure could lead users to draw the wrong conclusions. Someone interested in DOD spending data may not know that the amounts on USAspending.gov reflect a reporting delay. For Medicare data, spending reported for a payment processing center located in New York, could in fact be funds for Maine residents, potentially leading a user to misunderstand where and to whom Medicare dollars are going.

To improve transparency, we recommended that Treasury ensure both of these limitations are clearly displayed on USAspending.gov.

For more information about our review, check out our full report.


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