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'Close enough for government work' isn't good enough for Sunlight's Clearspending.com


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Washington Examiner:

'Close enough for government work' isn't good enough for Sunlight's Clearspending.com
Editorial Page Editor
09/08/10 2:03 PM EDT

Sunlight Foundation has just put up Clearspending.com, an important new web site that tracks the accuracy of federal spending data posted to USASpending.gov. So far, Clearspending.com has found more than $1.3 trillion in federal spending that was incorrectly reported by departments and agencies.

Clearspending.com is an extremely important milestone in the road to making government in America at all levels, not just the federal government, as transparent and therefore accountable as possible, consistent with national security and related concerns.

Frankly, as I've broused USASpending.gov in recent months, I've feared that what began as a noble effort was declining into mediocrity and irrelevance. Clearspending.com gives new hope that USASpending.gov can still become the fulcrum of a whole new generation of transparency tools for government.

When President Bush signed the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA) mandating creation of USASpending.gov - a web site designed to put most federal spending within a few mouse clicks for every American - I was among those cheering the most.

For those who might not remember, FFATA's main sponsors were Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, and then-Sen. Barack Obama, and the measure was informally known as "Coburn-Obama."

For the first two years, there were glitches, but the site was fairly easy to understand and use. When the Obama administration took office, however, there were redesigns and some changes in functionality, some good, others not so good. In its present configuration, for example, it's unnecessarily difficult, for example, to drill down on simple searches for all spending under generic categories.

Worse is the concern about the quality and credibility of the data that I and others who were advocates for USASpending.gov have voiced in various forums in recent years. When FFATA became law, it was well-known throughout the transparency community, as well as investigative journalists, academic researchers, and others with interest in tracking federal spending that it was extraordinarily difficult to do so.

The basic reason was that there were too many discrete databases, each containing only parts of the overall spending picture, they didn't "talk" to each other, and there were too many differences in how the data was defined, organized and accessed. The FFATA required OMB to issue new guidance to agencies on how they were begin reporting their spending data.

The folks at Clearspending.com offer this extremely diplomatic assessment of where things stand today on these issues:

"Despite the directives of OMB to federal agencies to improve the quality of the data that feeds USASpending.gov26, little has been done to fix the accuracy and completeness problems of FPDS-NG and FAADS-PLUS, which continue to be the main sources of the data in USASpending.gov.snip
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