Fast Facts

The DATA Act called on federal agencies to increase the transparency of roughly $3.7 trillion in annual spending by improving the quality of data available to Congress, federal managers, and the public.

We found that budget data were largely consistent with agency records; however, only between 0 to 1 percent of award records (e.g., grants, contracts, and loans) were fully consistent. Additionally, some submissions were incomplete and agencies applied data standards differently. OMB and Treasury agreed with our six recommendations to clarify guidance, help ensure data submissions are complete, and disclose data quality issues.

Example of How Two Federal Agencies Can Report Different Locations—or "Primary Place of Performance"—for Where Federal Dollars Were Spent

One agency reported the company's location for

One agency reported the company's location for "Primary Place of Performance," while the other reported the delivery address.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

A total of 78 federal agencies, including all 24 Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act agencies, submitted data by May 2017, as required by the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). However, GAO identified issues and challenges with the completeness and accuracy of the data submitted, use of data elements, and presentation of the data on Beta.USAspending.gov.

Completeness: Awards for 160 financial assistance programs with estimated annual spending of $80.8 billion were omitted from the data for the second quarter of fiscal year 2017. Also, 13 agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Agriculture, submitted the file intended to link budgetary and award information without providing any data. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provided technical assistance to help agencies determine whether they are required to report under the act, but not all agencies had made that determination by the May 2017 reporting deadline. As a result of these issues, OMB and the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) cannot reasonably assure that subsequent data submissions will be complete.

Accuracy: Based on a projectable sample representing approximately 94 percent of all records in Beta.USAspending.gov, GAO found that data accuracy—measured as consistency between reported data and authoritative agency sources—differed sharply between budgetary and award records. GAO estimates with 95 percent confidence that between 56 to 75 percent of the newly-required budgetary records were fully consistent with agency sources. In contrast, GAO estimates that only between 0 to 1 percent of award records were fully consistent. This represents a decrease in consistency from what GAO reported in 2014, when GAO estimated that between 2 to 7 percent of award records were fully consistent. A record was considered “fully consistent” if the information it contained matched agency sources for every applicable data element.

Use: GAO also identified challenges in the implementation and use of two data elements— Primary Place of Performance and Award Description —that are particularly important to achieving the DATA Act's transparency goals. GAO found that agencies differ in how they interpret and apply OMB's definitions for these data elements, raising concerns regarding data consistency and comparability. These findings underscore the need for clarified guidance and improved data governance.

Presentation: Treasury provides feedback mechanisms to users on Beta.USAspending.gov, and plans to address known website search functionality issues. However, Treasury does not sufficiently disclose known limitations affecting data quality. The website is under continuing development and disclosing limitations will be essential in the fall of 2017 when, according to Treasury, the previous version of USAspending.gov will be retired and the new version becomes the sole available source of certified agency data submitted under the DATA Act.

Why GAO Did This Study

The DATA Act requires agencies to increase the types and transparency of over $3.7 trillion in annual federal spending data, and requires OMB and Treasury to establish data standards to enable the reporting and tracking of agency spending. Consistent with GAO's mandate under the act, this assessment is GAO's first review of the quality of the data collected under the act that agencies reported beginning in May 2017 and made available through Beta.USAspending.gov, a website currently under development by Treasury.

Specifically, this report examines (1) the completeness, timeliness, accuracy and quality of the data and use of data standards; and (2) the consistency of the Beta.USAspending.gov website with selected standards for federal websites. GAO analyzed a sample of second quarter fiscal year 2017 data, projectable to the 24 CFO Act agencies, from a database that populates Beta.USAspending.gov and traced them back to agency source records. GAO also compared the data and functionality of this website with selected federal website standards.

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Recommendations

GAO makes two recommendations to OMB regarding technical assistance and clarifying guidance to help ensure agencies fully comply with DATA Act requirements and report data completely and accurately; and four recommendations to Treasury, including disclosing known data quality issues on its website. OMB and Treasury generally agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Management and Budget
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
1. The Director of OMB should continue to provide ongoing technical assistance that significantly contributes to agencies making their own determinations about their DATA Act reporting requirements and monitor agency submissions. (Recommendation 1)
Open
OMB stated in January 2020 that it believes that the assistance it has previously provided to help agencies make their own reporting determinations fulfills the recommendation's intent. However, because we continue to identify instances where agencies had not submitted these data, we continue to believe that OMB needs to follow up with agencies that are not submitting quarterly data to find out why they are not reporting. It also needs to update its list of agencies required to report.
Office of Management and Budget
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
2. The Director of OMB should clarify and align existing guidance regarding the appropriate definitions agencies should use to collect and report on <i>Primary Place of Performance</i> and establish monitoring mechanisms to foster consistent application and compliance. (Recommendation 2)
Open
OMB has issued or contributed to guidance documents that are intended to help agencies collect and report on "Primary Place of Performance." We believe that providing specific examples of how agencies should approach challenging situations when reporting on this data element for grants would provide further clarity.
Department of the Treasury
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
3. The Secretary of the Treasury should reasonably assure that the process for determining whether required agencies are submitting spending data is in place and operating as designed. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
Treasury has established a process to determine whether required agencies are submitting spending data in accordance with the DATA Act. In December 2018, Treasury provided an explanation and documentation that shows how they use the broker to track agency submissions by running a quarterly report that identifies agencies that have certified their submissions. Treasury compares this report to a list of agencies that are subject to the DATA Act that Treasury obtains from OMB.
Department of the Treasury
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
4. The Secretary of the Treasury should reasonably assure that ongoing monitoring controls to help ensure the completeness and accuracy of agency submissions are designed, implemented, and operating as designed. (Recommendation 4)
Closed - Implemented
In October 2019, Treasury issued a memorandum outlining policies and procedures for its DATA Act outreach plan for ongoing monitoring of agency submissions in fulfillment of DATA Act requirements. This process includes (1) repeatedly emailing agencies prior to submission deadlines to remind them of the approaching data submission deadlines; (2) following up with agencies that do not submit required data by the submission deadline through email and conference calls offering technical assistance as needed; and (3) forwarding a list of non-compliant agencies to OMB. In addition, Treasury compiles a matrix of agencies that did and did not submit data which it posts on the Data Transparency OMB MAX page. Treasury's implementation of this system each fiscal quarter improves the completeness of agency submissions that follow the applicable operating and quality requirements of Treasury's DATA Act broker system for accepting agency data as well as the transparency of such submissions.
Department of the Treasury
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
5. The Secretary of the Treasury should disclose known data quality issues and limitations on the new USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 5)
Closed - Implemented
Treasury has taken several steps to address this recommendation. These steps include the following: (1) in November 2020, Treasury added language to USAspending.gov that disclosed the 90-day delay that exists for Department of Defense and Army Corps of Engineers procurement data displayed on the site; (2) in January 2021, Treasury added language to the website disclosing that the location fields for Medicare payment data do not reflect the places where Medicare beneficiaries or provider physicians/hospitals are actually located; (3) between August 2020 and April 2021, Treasury made several disclosures regarding data limitations for COVID-19-related spending including information from specific federal agencies regarding how reporting issues may affect the accuracy or completeness of COVID-19 data displayed on the site; and (4) in May 2021, Treasury added an Agency Submission Statistics Page intended to provide an overview of data limitations by agency, fiscal year, and reporting period. Among the issues covered, are if and when an agency submitted data and whether there were gaps between award and financial data in the form of unlinked awards. These actions provide users of USAspending.gov with a fuller understanding of existing data limitations and may help them to assess potential quality issues and avoid drawing inaccurate conclusions from the data.
Department of the Treasury 6. The Secretary of the Treasury should make the known data limitations found in Senior Accountable Official certifications more accessible and evident to users of the new USAspending.gov. (Recommendation 6)
Closed - Implemented
In December 2017, Treasury relabeled all SAO qualification statements from "data.yml" to "Quarterly Assurance Statement" and included additional information on the "About" page regarding the purpose and use of SAO certifications. As a result, the quarterly SAO certifications and qualification statements are more accessible and evident to users of the new USAspending.gov.

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