Federal Spending Transparency: Opportunities Exist for Treasury to Further Improve USAspending.gov's Use and Usefulness

GAO-22-104127 Published: Dec 16, 2021. Publicly Released: Dec 16, 2021.
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Fast Facts

Government spending data is available at USAspending.gov for website users to search, download, and analyze.

The Treasury Department has actively collected feedback from site users, 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 we surveyed in 2020 didn't know about the site. Also, some of the users we interviewed said it was hard to find what they needed—either specific data or information about the data to help users understand and use it appropriately.

We recommended addressing these and other issues.

USAspending.gov is the official open data source of federal spending information.

person searching on USAspending.gov

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Federal spending data websites let users search, download, and analyze how the U.S. government spends public funds. Users GAO interviewed—representing the public, recipients of federal funds, and federal agencies, among others—identified a variety of uses for, and challenges with, these websites (see figure).

Highlight 01_5-v3c-104127-rr

The Department of the Treasury has collected website user feedback through various channels including usability testing sessions and an online community forum. In response to that input, Treasury officials have added information on unreported data to, created a data dictionary for, and provided additional file formats for downloads on their spending data websites.

Consistent with user-centered website design principles, Treasury identified specific types of expected users through the development of user “personas”—such as citizens and recipients—each with different interests and needs. However, GAO's analysis found limited evidence that Treasury targeted USAspending.gov training toward these personas. GAO also found that Treasury generally did not target promotion efforts to these personas. Without taking these steps, Treasury may miss opportunities to encourage greater use of the website or properly address the needs of the different types of users.

Website users also reported difficulties locating disclosures of data limitations on USAspending.gov. This information is typically unavailable on or near the pages where users are searching for, or viewing, the data. In addition, GAO found that USAspending.gov does not include a site search function that could be used to more easily locate information on data limitations. If users cannot easily locate data limitation disclosures, they could inadvertently draw inaccurate conclusions from the data or lose confidence in them.

Why GAO Did This Study

In fiscal year 2020, the federal government spent $7.4 trillion. USAspending.gov, the Data Lab website, and PandemicOversight.gov provide key information on this spending.

Congress included a provision for GAO to review implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, which requires federal reporting of spending data. This report examines (1) user perspectives on useful activities for, and challenges with, these websites; (2) the extent to which information on use and usability of the USAspending.gov and Data Lab websites informs updates of their design and operation; and (3) the extent to which Treasury has addressed challenges regarding the awareness of, and data limitation disclosures on, USAspending.gov.

For this report, GAO collected user input from a nongeneralizable sample of 63 individuals and organizations using a snowball sampling technique. This allowed GAO to identify contacts through referrals, and additional information from a projectable sample of federal managers who were familiar with USAspending.gov. GAO also analyzed documents, compared Treasury actions with guidance and good practices, and interviewed agency officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations to Treasury, including that it should target USAspending.gov promotion and training to specific user personas, and make known data limitation disclosures more prominent and easily accessible to users. Treasury concurred with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Treasury The Secretary of the Treasury should develop and implement website promotion efforts that are clearly targeted toward the USAspending.gov user personas that it has previously identified. (Recommendation 1)
Open
Treasury officials stated that they have tied their USAspending.gov promotion efforts to specific features and initiatives that they have launched for the website. For example, Treasury has conducted outreach with collaborative partners to help inform its recent "Data Dives" feature as well as its YouTube tutorial videos and its promotional strategy is tied to the success of such initiatives. We have reached out to Treasury for additional details and documentation so that we can better understand and evaluate these efforts.
Department of the Treasury The Secretary of the Treasury should develop and implement training that targets the specific needs of USAspending.gov user personas, and make training (including existing resources such as its Analyst's Guide to Federal Spending Data) prominent on the USAspending.gov website. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
In response to this recommendation, Treasury has made more training resources available on USAspending.gov. This includes the migration of its Analyst's Guide to Federal Spending Data to the website and the release of YouTube video tutorials intended to help users answer common questions about federal award spending. In addition, Treasury told us that they have provided customized training for specific users who have requested training through the website. We have reached out to Treasury for additional details and documentation of these efforts.
Department of the Treasury The Secretary of the Treasury should add a broad website search function to USAspending.gov to help users find content on the website. (Recommendation 3)
Open
Treasury officials told us that they are in the process of laying the foundation for a broad ("global") search function across all USAspending.gov content. However, they expect the design work for a global search function will not begin until FY2024 at the earliest.
Department of the Treasury
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of the Treasury should develop and implement approaches to make known data limitation disclosures more prominent and easily accessible to USAspending.gov users. (Recommendation 4)
Open
Treasury officials told us that they have designed a solution for an accessible and persistent data limitation disclosure module, which they plan to implement in the coming months. We have requested additional information on this effort.

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