Open Data:

Treasury Could Better Align USAspending.gov with Key Practices and Search Requirements

GAO-19-72: Published: Dec 13, 2018. Publicly Released: Dec 13, 2018.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Triana McNeil
(202) 512-6806
McNeilT@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Open data—like the spending data the Treasury Department shares on USAspending.gov—can increase transparency to promote public trust in government. Because the data have broad appeal among users such as grant recipients, Congress, and the public, it's important to make the data as usable as possible.

We identified 5 key practices for transparently reporting government data. For example, websites should facilitate data discovery by presenting the data in a way that allows easy exploration, such as through a search function.

We recommended steps to better align USAspending.gov with key practices and other requirements.

 

This is a photograph of a computer screen showing the website USAspending.gov.

This is a photograph of a computer screen showing the website USAspending.gov.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Triana McNeil
(202) 512-6806
McNeilT@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

GAO identified five key practices for transparently reporting government data, as well as actions to implement each practice. These key practices and actions can assist managers of open government data programs in the transparent presentation of their data. Open data are information that can be freely used, modified, or shared by anyone for any purpose.

USAspending.gov aligns with several key practices. However, the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) has not fully aligned the website with all of the key practices, the requirements of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA), and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance (see table.) FFATA, as amended by the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act), directed Treasury to develop and manage USAspending.gov to provide detailed information on federal spending.

USAspending.gov Alignment with Key Practices and Other Requirements

Key practices

USAspending.gov characteristics

USAspending.gov Alignment with Key Practices and Other Requirements

Provide free and unrestricted data

Consistent with this key practice, USAspending.gov, as a general matter, provides unrestricted data to the public and Treasury has made all the data available for free. In the course of its work, GAO found that users could only download the complete database after registering for an account with a third-party database host and incurring a charge. In July 2018, in response to GAO's inquiries, Treasury provided an option for users to download the entire database for free without creating an account.

USAspending.gov Alignment with Key Practices and Other Requirements

Engage with users

Consistent with this key practice, Treasury conducts user research and engages with users of USAspending.gov online and in person. For example, Treasury officials said they have conducted more than 150 interviews with users. Treasury officials also told GAO that they have directly engaged with various audiences about the website through a hackathon and a partnership.

USAspending.gov Alignment with Key Practices and Other Requirements

Provide data in useful formats

Consistent with this key practice, USAspending.gov provides detailed, machine-readable data in standardized formats and includes several options for downloading the data. However, Treasury lacks a process to ensure that any new pages added to the website are hosted on a .gov domain and encrypted with the secure HTTPS protocol required by OMB. Without such a process Treasury does not have assurance that new pages added to the website meet federal security requirements.

USAspending.gov Alignment with Key Practices and Other Requirements

Fully describe the data

USAspending.gov does not fully reflect this key practice because while it discloses data sources and timeliness, the website does not provide structured metadata. Providing metadata—structured descriptive information about the data—is also an OMB requirement. In addition, while OMB guidance provides that agencies must apply open licenses, the website does not provide comprehensive licensing information for the data. As a result, users may not have the information they need on how the data can be used.

USAspending.gov Alignment with Key Practices and Other Requirements

Facilitate data discovery for all users

Consistent with this key practice, Treasury facilitates data discovery by providing tools such as interactive maps and visualizations to help users interpret the data. However, users cannot search for city and program source (the unique accounting code used to track federal spending) as required by FFATA. As a result, users may be unable to find certain financial or geographic information related to recipients or federal programs.

Source: GAO analysis of USAspending.gov. │ GAO-19-72

Why GAO Did This Study

Open data can foster accountability and public trust by providing citizens with information on government activities and their outcomes. It can also promote private sector innovation. The DATA Act requires that the federal government collect and present open data on roughly $4 trillion in annual federal spending. The DATA Act also includes a provision requiring GAO to review its implementation.

This report (1) identifies key practices for transparently reporting government data; and (2) evaluates the extent to which USAspending.gov is consistent with those key practices and other requirements. GAO developed the key practices by systematically evaluating and synthesizing information from literature on open data, as well as interviews with open data experts and good governance groups. GAO used these key practices as well as existing federal website standards and applicable laws to evaluate USAspending.gov.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations including that Treasury (1) establish a process to ensure that additions to USAspending.gov meet security requirements, (2) provide structured metadata and licensing information on the website, and (3) ensure that users can search for awards by city and program source as required by law. Treasury agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Triana McNeil at (202) 512-6806 or McNeilT@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should establish a process to ensure all pages on the USAspending.gov website use the secure HTTPS protocol, consistent with OMB requirements. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should establish a process to ensure all content on USAspending.gov is available from a government domain, consistent with OMB requirements. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should fully comply with OMB's requirements by providing metadata in a single location that are easy to find on the USAspending.gov website. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should fully comply with OMB's requirements by communicating licensing information on USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should ensure that users can easily search for awards by city and program source (TAS), consistent with FFATA requirements. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

 

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