Will the National Action Plan Tackle Spending Transparency Gaps?

Dec. 9, 2013

By Nick Schwellenbach, Sr. Fiscal Policy Analyst, Center for Effective Government and Becky Sweger, Director of Data and Technology, National Priorities Project

The White House unveiled version 2.0 of its Open Government National Action Plan (NAP 2.0). An important part of the plan is shining more sunlight on how the federal government spends our money, such as improving the usability of USASpending.gov (the main public portal for spending information), providing more federal contract information, and making spending data more available in formats easy to parse with computers. We commend the White House for these commitments.

As our colleague Sean Moulton at the Center for Effective Government stated on Friday, “This broad and ambitious plan tackles important open government issues that we have long been advocating.” The National Action Plan 2.0's general commitment to fiscal transparency is sound, but we hope that as details get finalized the effort will address some of the gaps that exist.

In particular, while the federal government has made some large spending transparency strides and is committed to making more, there have been some backward steps in this arena. This backwards movement has made it more difficult for the public to examine some major areas of spending.

Goodbye, Consolidated Federal Funds Report

The single biggest hit to spending transparency was the elimination the Census Bureau’s Consolidated Federal Funds Report (CFFR), which tracked all forms of government spending.

The Census Bureau stated the CFFR (part of the Federal Financial Statistics program) was zeroed out because “difficult choices had to be made in balancing program needs and fiscal constraints” and this “resulted in the termination of the Federal Financial Statistics program in order to fund higher priority programs within the Census Bureau and Department.” Tight budgets in the Census Bureau meant less transparency for large parts of the federal budget.

From federal contracts and salaries to Medicare and Social Security benefits, the Census Bureau collected the numbers and presented them by geography, allowing the public to see federal dollars flowing to communities across the country.  Although the CFFR was only released once a year and well after the spending occurred, it was far more complete than USASpending.gov, the website we now use to track this information.

Here are just a few things reported by the CFFR that you won’t find in USASpending:

  • Salaries and benefits for federal employees. In fiscal 2010, the last available CFFR, these totaled nearly $343 billion - 10.5 percent of all reported spending.
  • Various tax credits, like the refundable part of the Earned Income Tax Credit. This was almost $52 billion in 2010.
  • U.S. Postal Service contracts - $15 billion in 2010.
  • Certain types of loans and insurance, like the federal flood insurance program.

USASpending.gov’s own Frequently Asked Questions page has said for years now that the White House’s Office of Management and Budget intends “to work with agencies to include these in USAspending.” So far, that has not happened.

Goodbye, Leases

Sometimes, useful information just…disappears. The General Services Administration (GSA) used to report the cost of government-owned building leases to USASpending. But then it stopped. The Center for Strategic and International Studies noted in a recent report that there was a 37 percent decline in GSA’s reports of its service contracts from $11.5 billion in 2011 to $7.3 billion in 2012. “This is apparently the result of a decision by GSA to stop reporting leases of office buildings,” the CSIS report states, “Though this decision is allowed … this represents a large step backwards for data transparency.” GSA should explain why the reporting stopped and reverse this decision.

Is Accuracy Improving?

Many transparency experts have criticized the accuracy of USASpending. While there are several initiatives to improve accuracy and agencies report improvements, especially with contract data, there is still substantial work to be done. A few of our favorite questionable USASpending numbers from 2012:

One of the reasons for the discrepancies is that the systems reporting data to USAspending are often separate from agencies' own accounting systems, so there's little incentive to keep the data accurate.
Bipartisan legislation that is advancing in the House and Senate would likely help improve spending data quality and accuracy. It is known as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act). The Obama administration should explicitly support this legislation; it builds on Obama’s work as a senator to create USASpending.

Hello, National Action Plan

Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending are missing from USASpending, the website designed to show the public how their tax dollars are spent.

We welcome the Open Government National Action Plan 2.0 and applaud its focus on moving federal spending transparency forward. But it is a starting point and a good deal of work remains.