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Federal Spending Transparency: Opportunities to Improve USAspending.gov Data

GAO-24-106214 Published: Nov 07, 2023. Publicly Released: Nov 07, 2023.
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Fast Facts

Many federal agencies must report their spending data on USAspending.gov to help the government—and the public—track federal funds.

In this Q&A report, we found that 49 agencies didn't report data to USAspending.gov. And neither Treasury nor the Office of Management and Budget have clear responsibility to determine which agencies should report. Also, some agencies reported amounts of COVID-19 spending to the website that didn't match their budget and annual financial reports.

We recommended that Congress consider amending the DATA Act and that OMB provide guidance to help improve data reporting.

the USAspending.gov website on a computer screen

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The website USAspending.gov, the official source of federal spending information, includes information about federal awards such as contracts, grants, and loans. Quality federal spending data are key for Congress, federal managers, and the American public in tracking taxpayers' dollars.

While there are requirements and guidance for agencies to submit standardized data, GAO found agencies that either did not report spending data or reported inconsistent spending data, including for COVID-19 funds. Specifically, in fiscal year 2022, 49 of the 152 agencies that reported information in the consolidated financial statements of the U.S. government, including agencies that received COVID-19 funding, did not report data to USAspending.gov.

USAspending.gov Reporting Compared to CFS Reporting, Fiscal Year 2022


Note: The fiscal year 2022 CFS included 164 federal entities. GAO excluded 12 of these entities for reasons such as some representing funds or entities that were not active. GAO refers to the remaining 152 entities as “agencies” for purposes of this report. GAO did not assess whether any of these are among the “executive agencies” required to report to USAspending.gov.

Certain types of federal executive agencies are required by law to report their spending information to USAspending.gov, although it is up to each agency to determine for itself if it falls under the definition of an agency that must report. Twenty-five of the 49 nonreporting agencies GAO identified were in the executive branch and accounted for more than $5 billion in net outlays for fiscal year 2022. Although many nonreporting agencies may not be required to report, neither the Department of the Treasury nor the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have clear responsibility for determining which agencies are required to report. Until Congress assigns responsibility to Treasury and OMB to periodically assess and determine which agencies must report data to USAspending.gov and oversee the completeness of their reporting, the USAspending.gov data may lack some required spending information.

In addition, some agencies reported COVID-19 obligation amounts to USAspending.gov that did not agree with the information in their budget and annual financial reports. For example, in its fiscal year 2022 agency financial report, Treasury reported COVID-19 obligations that exceeded the amounts it reported to USAspending.gov by more than $195 billion. The Department of Transportation reported amounts that differed by $10 million. Without OMB and Treasury guidance to help agencies ensure that information reported to USAspending.gov is consistent and comparable with other public sources, the transparency and use of USAspending.gov information may be questioned. Information that differs from one source to another may also cause confusion and lead users to inadvertently draw incorrect conclusions.

GAO also reviewed the reporting of other transaction agreements (OTA)—legally binding agreements other than standard contracts and grants that allow for flexible arrangements—and found that agencies used different approaches to report billions of dollars in OTA spending. GAO found over $40 billion in OTAs, including more than $10 billion that appeared to be related to COVID-19, that were not reported to USAspending.gov. However, the extent to which agencies completely and consistently reported this spending is unclear. Until Congress includes OTAs in the list of federal awards that agencies must report to USAspending.gov, policymakers and the public will continue to lack complete spending information and transparency of OTAs.

Why GAO Did This Study

USAspending.gov is intended to inform the American public about how much the federal government spends every year and for what purposes. The federal government has provided about $4.7 trillion to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the importance of tracking all federal spending.

The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to monitor and oversee the federal efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This report provides information on the completeness of USAspending.gov data and challenges that affect users' ability to track federal spending, including for disasters and emergencies. To perform this work, GAO analyzed data from USAspending.gov and other sources and interviewed OMB and Treasury officials.

Recommendations

GAO is recommending two matters for congressional consideration to improve the completeness of federal spending information. GAO is also making one recommendation to OMB to help agencies improve the comparability of USAspending.gov data to other public sources. OMB agreed with the recommendation.

 

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress should consider amending the DATA Act to assign Treasury, in coordination with OMB, the responsibilities to periodically assess and determine which agencies must report data to USAspending.gov and to oversee the completeness of reporting by all required agencies. (Matter for Congressional Consideration 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Congress should consider amending the DATA Act to include OTAs in the list of federal awards that agencies must report to USAspending.gov. (Matter for Congressional Consideration 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Management and Budget The Director of OMB, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Treasury, should provide guidance for agencies to ensure that the disaster and emergency budgetary data agencies report to USAspending.gov are consistent and comparable across other public sources, such as agency budget and annual financial reports. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Full Report

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Topics

Agency reportsBudget reportsDisaster emergenciesDisastersFederal agenciesFederal awardsFederal spendingFederal spending transparencyFinancial assistanceFinancial reportingHealth care standardsHomeland securitypandemicsPresident's budgetReporting requirements