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Federal Spending Transparency: Opportunities Exist for Treasury to Further Improve'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 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. is the official open data source of federal spending information.

person searching on

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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).

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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 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 This information is typically unavailable on or near the pages where users are searching for, or viewing, the data. In addition, GAO found that 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., the Data Lab website, and 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 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,

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 GAO also analyzed documents, compared Treasury actions with guidance and good practices, and interviewed agency officials.


GAO is making four recommendations to Treasury, including that it should target 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 user personas that it has previously identified. (Recommendation 1)
Open – Partially Addressed
Treasury officials stated that they have tied their promotion efforts to specific features and initiatives that they have launched for the website. Treasury has taken some steps such as conducting outreach with collaborative partners to help inform its "Data Dives" feature and producing YouTube tutorials on topics of specific interest. As of April 2024, Treasury continues to work on this recommendation.
Department of the Treasury The Secretary of the Treasury should develop and implement training that targets the specific needs of user personas, and make training (including existing resources such as its Analyst's Guide to Federal Spending Data) prominent on the website. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
As of April 2023, Treasury has released 12 training videos on its YouTube channel. Several of these videos target specific interests such as how to find government contracts for small businesses and how to find COVID and infrastructure spending. Treasury also created a new "Training Videos" page to provide access to its tutorials directly from In addition, Treasury improved user access to its Analyst's Guide to Federal Spending Data by making it directly available through a drop-down menu on the main landing page.
Department of the Treasury The Secretary of the Treasury should add a broad website search function to to help users find content on the website. (Recommendation 3)
Treasury officials told us that they are in the process of laying the foundation for a broad ("global") search function across all content. However, they expect the design work for a global search function will not begin until FY2024 at the earliest. As of April 2024, this status is unchanged.
Department of the Treasury
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of the Treasury should develop and implement approaches to make known data limitation disclosures more prominent and easily accessible to users. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
Between November 2022 and March 2023, Treasury implemented several website updates that significantly improved the prominence and accessibility of information about the data on and its known limitations. These include the new features "About the Data" and "Data Sources," which provide information about the sources, timing, and limitations of data provided on the website. Topics covered by the "About the Data" feature can be accessed as an interactive resource while using and as a pdf download for off-line reference.

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