May. 22nd, 2008 05:49 pm:
Your Tax Dollars Hard At Work

It was something everyone could agree on: a user-friendly website showing how much money the government spends--a very literal display of "your tax dollars hard at work." The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) partnered with the nonprofit watchdog OMB Watch, to devise the software. But something appears to be clouding all this much-trumpeted transparency: The numbers don't add up.

The new site is USASpending.gov. Its welcome screen boasts: "Where Americans Can See Where Their Money Goes."

Well, not really. I tried to use the site to see how the surge in Iraq had affected the Pentagon's contract spending. Summary reports from the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) showed exponential growth in Department of Defense spending on contracts from 2000 to 2005. So when I logged on to USASpending.gov in early March, I expected to see a continued upward trend. But my first visit yielded something less than transparent: The site was already displaying total contracting figures for 2006 and 2007, citing FPDS as its source. That would have been about two months ahead of schedule, as the official numbers for 2006 were only scheduled for public release last Friday. The site gave no indication, however, that the agency numbers weren't final and definitive.

The total Pentagon contracting figures for 2007 revealed a downward trend from 2006. How could it be that we actually spent less on defense contracts in 2007, the year of the surge, than in 2006? All appearances to the contrary, the site's summary numbers for both 2006 and 2007 are still changing over time as more reports flow in. More disturbing, the numbers on OMB's site depart from other sources because OMB is "cleansing" the agency data. Nothing on USASpending.gov says just how the data are being cleansed.

There is nothing wrong with data cleansing in principle; the more accurate the numbers, the better. But users of USASpending.gov deserve to be told why and how data are being cleansed for the site to truly provide accountability.

 

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