With talk of “Google for Government” highlighting budget transparency, we take a look at the US Congress’s performance on the issue compared to other nations, and take USAspending.gov for a test drive.
A week ago in the first presidential debate, Senator Barack Obama mentioned he worked with Senator Tom Coburn “to set up what we call a Google for Government, which says that we are going to list every dollar of federal spending to make sure that the taxpayer can take a look and see.”
The actual name of this law is the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (S. 2590) (FFATA), and it mandates the Office of Management Budget to ensure the existence and operation of a single searchable website, accessible by the public at no cost to access information on federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans.
So how does the US rank in budget transparency compared with other countries?
According to the Global Integrity Report: 2007 the federal budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner in the debating stage, with the exception of certain budget items related to intelligence and national security issues.
In 2006 the International Budget Partnership (formerly called the International Budget Project) made a study of budget transparency in 59 countries, rating the openness of their budget process; the US obtained a percentage score of 81 in the aggregate index. Only four countries rank higher than the US (France, UK, New Zealand, and South Africa), and consequently was categorized as a top tier country, which “provides extensive information.”
The aggregate index, called the Open Budget Index 2006, collects information on the executive’s budget proposal and any supporting documents that may accompany it at the time it is presented to the country’s legislative, the citizens budget, the pre-budget statement, the in-year reports, the mid-year review, the year-end report, and finally a report by the supreme audit institution (or equivalent agency).
The US does not reach the top tier group in two categories: the pre-budget statement and the year-end report. One of the main weaknesses in the US budget process is the there is no pre-budget statement made available to the public. For the year-end report criteria the US it reaches only the second tier, “Provides partial information to citizens”
A new study was planned to be published in the last quarter of this year. Let’s see if FFATA helps the US receive a higher score this time.
Test Driving USAspending.gov
In practical terms, the FFATA lives at www.USAspending.gov. The key search has a reasonably good interface that lets researchers or journalists query government financial records by company, fiscal year, and so on. Results can be displayed as a web page, or downloaded in a generic database format. It seems like a small thing, but not all US government reports have this essential function (the IRS website is notorious for this).
“I found it extremely useful,” says Nick Schwellenbach, a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. He uses it as a starting point to profile companies by getting a quick sense of their business with the federal government. Previously, he had used the Federal Procurement Data System, which provides the source data for USAspending.gov. The new search tool uses the same data, but is a step towards Google-like ease of use, he says. “It’s closer than anything else, but it’s not quite that simple.”
A search for defense contractor Lockheed Martin generates, as expected, a few thousands hits, with a decent level of detail in each record. Certainly faster than trying to use a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. However, FOIA may still be the gold standard for getting reliable information from government.
The potential for incomplete data worries Schwellenbach. “I felt like I always wanted to double check the numbers,” he says.
“I know it’s incomplete,” says Kevin Baron, a freelancer for the Boston Globe. Via FOIA, he built a database of USAID grants while reporting on faith-based groups. By comparing his FOIA results to the USAspending.gov database, he quickly found that significant data are missing. This makes the database nearly useless in getting hard numbers on, for instance, how much money has gone to a particular company. If an agency fails to report information to the Federal Procurement Data System, there is no indication of this in the search results. The contracts simply don’t appear.
“It’s a mess,” says Baron. “And the reliance on self reporting is troublesome.”
“I applaud and welcome the effort,” says Baron. But for now, FOIA requests to individual agencies are the more definitive source — despite the long battles that researchers routinely fight to have FOIA requests for databases honored.
— Renato Busquets and Jonathan Werve