Is Someone Not Telling the Whole Truth about USASpending.gov?

July 20, 2011 | By Jerry Ashworth | Post a Comment

One of my favorite phrases when discussing numbers is the familiar refrain “lies, damn lies and statistics.” It seems as if statistics can be interpreted in any fashion to make a certain point. Such is the case with USASpending.gov.

A Sunlight Foundation database purports that USASpending.gov had about $1.3 trillion in broken funding links in 2009, opening a debate as to the accuracy and reliability of the data on the site (see Sunlight Foundation Co-founder and Executive Director Ellen Miller explain the findings at a recent house hearing in the video below around the 5 minute mark).

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However, Karen F. Lee of the Office of Management and Budget said during the National Grants Partnership’s webcast last week that the OMB objected to the Sunlight Foundation’s methodology, adding that the foundation used the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance for its baseline data.

Lee said the CFDA is a “prospective tool” for recipients and that the funding numbers in the CFDA are estimates that can be affected by budgetary changes and the diverting of funds. “The CFDA is not an accurate baseline to determine what the full amount of a given program’s grant coffer would be when giving out awards, so the Sunlight Foundation is not accurate,” she added. However, Lee said she agreed that the data in USASpending is “not of the highest quality,” and the OMB has been working with federal agencies to enhance the data.

Whether you side with the OMB or the Sunlight Foundation on this issue and regardless of whether USASpending.gov is completely accurate, the fact that the federal government even offers such a site is a true asset for transparency and accountability. And considering that the website is still essentially in its infancy, it can be a much better site after a few years of working out the kinks. True data quality takes time. Call that a lie or a damn lie if you want, but I would beg to differ.

More on the NGP webcast will be available in the September issue of the Federal Grants Management Handbook.

How do you feel about the data on USASpending.gov? Are your concerned about its accuracy? Let us know.

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