Civic Hackers Conclude: Federal Spending Transparency Nonexistent

The intrepid budget team at Hack for Western Mass

Steve, Karim, Mark, Anthony, Becky, Laura, and David dive into the federal budget. Photo courtesy of Molly McLeod

This is a guest post from Anthony Holley, a member of the intrepid Hack for Western Mass team that spent last weekend trying to track money reported in back to the federal budget. Anthony is a writer living and working in Amherst, MA. He is interested in helping good non-profits grow so that they can do their best work.

If you’re interested in understanding how federal spending impacts your local community, you’ve only got one option: This site reports federal awards data, with a list of recipients, fulfilling the mandate set forth by the Federal Funding and Transparency act of 2006. is the key source for advocacy groups like NPP, so it seems like a natural question to ask: what if someone wanted to understand how this data relates back to the federal budget itself, the “blueprint for our democracy?” Could they? NPP decided to pose this question at Hack for Western Mass, the local version of the larger National Day of Civic Hacking, and a group of civic-minded programmers, engineers, entrepreneurs, designers, and interested citizens set about answering it.

The group found that while transparency may be touted in principle, it is not executed in practice. The attempted “hack” proceeded from the idea that true transparency would mean being able to trace spending from origination through expenditures.

Because reports awards data as obligated funds (money that’s been set aside for a designated purpose but not yet spent), we settled for trying to match those amounts back to obligations as reported in the Appendix of the Budget of the U.S. Because the Budget Appendix is, by definition, more comprehensive than, we made adjustments as necessary.

We tried to see if fulfills its mandate for providing knowledge that’s useful, informative, and a catalyst for effective change, and we concluded that it does not. We found inconsistent identifiers and data entry methods that make tying numbers back to the federal budget cumbersome and, in some cases, impossible.

Washington insiders might call the quest to link the two sources Quixotic, but our team is confident that citizens concerned with where their tax dollars are going will agree that tracing a straight line from the federal budget to the website meant to inform us about the spending it itemizes is only common sense.