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GAO pushes for more data transparency

One of my pet peeves about the government market is how much business never sees the light of day.

There are large IDIQ contracts that issue solicitations only to holders of those contracts. When most task orders were less than $50 million, this wasn't that big a deal. But now these task orders can be in the hundreds of millions.

And that is just one example of the lack of transparency. I’m still getting my head wrapped around Other Transaction Authority spending.

The Government Accountability Office takes aim at this issue through a new report looking at USASpending.gov and the need for improvements there. USASpending.gov is a portal where you can get data on government spending. But it can be clunking and not very user friendly.

The push for more open data began more than a decade ago with the 2006 passage of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. In 2014, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act or the DATA Act was passed. In between, USAspending.gov was launched. We are now on the third iteration of data portal.

GAO identified five key practices that would improve transparency and access to government data:

  • Provide free and unrestricted data
  • Engage with users
  • Provide data in useful formats
  • Fully describe the data
  • Facility data discovery for all users

USASpending.gov officials didn’t push back on any of GAO’s recommendations and agreed with all of them.

In particular, they should focus on improving data formats, describing the data as well as proving free and unrestricted data.

I also think that the last recommendation is to facilitate data discovery. By this I mean, it should be easier to get in and explore the data. Some areas that interest me -- spending categories, spending by agency and what USAspending.gov calls “recipients.” In other words, it would great to tie more of the spending to the companies that are getting the dollars.

You can do this to a certain extent now but it should be easier and more intuitive to get there.

Most of GAO’s recommendations are for the Treasury Department to comply with different legislative and regulatory requirements.

For example, the Office of Management and Budget has metadata requirements to make searches more efficient. Another requirement is the ability to search for awards by city and program source.

I think overall GAO is positive about USASpending.gov. But I think the pressure and scrutiny is good because without it we won’t see improvements.

One thing they have done with the latest edition of USASpending.gov is the addition of recipient profiles where you can dive deeper into individual companies. A lot of great information there. But you can’t easily drill down.

For example, you can see who Booz Allen Hamilton’s top five agencies are. You can also go below that and see what they are getting from the Defense Department, their number one customer agency.

It is improving but they just need to keep going.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Dec 17, 2018 at 7:56 PM


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