Increasing the availability of federal data can foster accountability and trust by providing the public with information on government activities and their results. In addition, federal decision makers need good data to assess whether federal programs achieve their intended results.
Various federal laws require agencies to make different types of data open and transparent through public websites. But to be useful, federal data must be accessible, accurate, and timely (among other things). And federal agencies have faced a number of challenges that limit the usefulness of federal data.
- Agencies reported about $10 trillion in FY 2021 federal spending to USAspending.gov. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Treasury are responsible for ensuring that the information on this website is consistent, reliable, and accurately displayed. (Increasing the availability and transparency of government data are priority recommendations to both OMB and Treasury.) They have given agencies guidance to help improve the quality and scope of data, but could improve the transparency of data limitations online. For example, the website doesn't always disclose issues related to the quality of the data—such as information that isn't included in the data. Congress should also clarify the responsibilities and authorities of OMB and Treasury for ensuring the quality of the data available on this website.
- Treasury has actively collected feedback from site users of USAspending.gov, including through usability testing, and has made changes. It identified different likely users' interests and needs, but could do more to promote the site to them. 92% of federal managers surveyed in 2020 didn't know about the site. Also, some users said it was hard to find what they needed—either specific data or information about the data to help them understand and use it appropriately.
- The DATA Act seeks to improve the transparency of federal spending by expanding on prior legislation to set government-wide data standards, link award spending to programs, and hold agencies accountable for improving the quality of the data. The act also requires that each federal agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) review and report on the quality of its agency’s spending data. They have done so, and many of these OIGs have made recommendations to improve data quality at their respective agencies. The final reports were due in November 2021, but OIGs continue to identify areas for improvement. Extending the requirement for ongoing OIG oversight could help ensure that the quality of agency data submissions to USAspending.gov continues to improve.
- Federal laws and guidance have outlined several actions that agencies can take to implement "data governance"—a framework of organizational structures and supports to help agencies improve the quality and availability of data. Agencies have made progress in establishing data governance to ensure that federal data are consistent and comparable. However, some agencies need to address key milestones to ensure their data quality plans are consistent with OMB guidance, and ensure that their staff has the necessary data literacy and skills.
- The OPEN Government Data Act requires federal agencies to publish their information as open data (i.e., publicly accessible, machine readable, and free to use, modify, and share), maintain data inventories, and engage with the public about agency data. Many agencies display their data inventories on their websites, but it's unclear how often they update these inventories. This act also requires OMB to issue guidance to agencies to increase public access to data, but OMB has yet to do so.
- Performance information can help decision makers understand and improve results at federal agencies. A 2020 survey of federal managers showed that the reported use of performance information in decision-making generally increased across the federal government compared to prior years. However, opportunities remain for improving the accessibility and completeness of federal performance data made available on Performance.gov—including ensuring that this information consistently complies with public reporting requirements.
- The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows the public to request access to government information. During the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies received and processed fewer FOIA requests, but agency FOIA backlogs continued growing. Several agencies encountered initial challenges once employees moved to full-time telework due to difficulties accessing mailed requests or paper records. Agencies also said that lawsuits—which requesters may file if agencies don't meet FOIA response deadlines—were a growing challenge even before the pandemic.
FOIA Lawsuits Received in Federal District Courts, 2012 through 2020
Federal Spending Transparency: OIGs Identified a Variety of Issues with the Quality of Agencies' Data Submissions
Freedom of Information Act: Selected Agencies Adapted to the COVID-19 Pandemic but Face Ongoing Challenges and Backlogs
Federal Spending Transparency: Opportunities Exist for Treasury to Further Improve USAspending.gov's Use and Usefulness
Open Data: Additional Action Required for Full Public Access
Federal Spending Transparency: Opportunities Exist to Further Improve the Information Available on USAspending.gov
Evidence-Based Policymaking: Survey Results Suggest Increased Use of Performance Information Across the Federal Government
Freedom of Information Act: Actions Needed to Improve Agency Compliance with Proactive Disclosure Requirements
Freedom of Information Act: Update on Federal Agencies' Use of Exemption Statutes
Data Governance: Agencies Made Progress in Establishing Governance, but Need to Address Key Milestones
Open Data: Agencies Need Guidance to Establish Comprehensive Data Inventories; Information on Their Progress is Limited
Data Act: Quality of Data Submissions Has Improved but Further Action Is Needed to Disclose Known Data Limitations