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Gov Misrepresents $1.55 trillion in grants? How did it happen?

The Sunlight Foundation reports that $1.55 trillion dollars has misrepresented in federal spending in 2011. That baffling number is just one of the findings for the Clearspending report.

But how can that happen? And how can agencies adequately manage when they don’t have a firm grip on their spending?

Kaitlin Devin is a senior web developer at the Sunlight foundation. She told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the report focused on three things, consistency of reporting, completeness of reporting and timeliness.

How did they do it?

The government’s USAspending.gov allows the public to search how it spends money. However, what the government posts about their grants doesn’t always match up with available bookkeeping records. The $1.55 trillion in misreported funds in 2011 account for 94.5 percent of the total grant spending data reported that year.

Consistency — The amount failing due to inconsistency has increased over the past few years, now at 69.3 percent for 2011. This is largely due to several Medicare insurance programs that had reported data to USASpending.gov, but stopped reporting altogether in FY 2010. It’s not clear why these programs stopped reporting, but the public database for the Department of Health and Human Services (TAGGS) also does not have this spending reported.

Completeness — Since our last report, the number of obligations with completeness errors has gone down quite a bit, falling from a high of 66 percent of all measured obligations in 2010 to 26 percent in 2011.

Timeliness — In our last report, we saw the number of obligations failing from timeliness drop precipitously. This year, it has dropped even further, with just 1.5 percent of all obligations failing from timeliness in FY 2011.

Why Accurate Reporting Matters

“Data matters. What expenditures on the executive side shown in USA Spending are supposed to demonstrate the most clear cut direct view into what our priorities are. When you have those debates in Congress about the fiscal cliff both sides are using different numbers. It’s hard to see what a program is worth when both sides have different figures. A citizen should be able to jump in there and know what the government spent on a particular project and right now they can’t.”

  • These data sets have value in terms of inter-government information sharing.
  • People in Congress would benefit from having access to the information.
  • Many agencies have overlapping programs and in the age of austerity that is not fiscally possible.

Data Act – Is it a fix? (Check out our interview with Hudson Hollister about the Data Act)

“The House version would create an independent agency almost identical to the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. But the Senate version has an advisory committee. The Data Act would task the Treasury department with coming up with government-wide spending standards and reporting.”

Accountability on Top

“The is a big workflow and lack of ownership issue when it comes to reporting. Originally OMB was tasked with running USA Spending but now GSA does a lot of the implementation. No one really spends the time to verify the numbers.”

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