In 2006, as a U.S. Senator, President Barack Obama co-sponsored bipartisan backed legislation that would increase the transparency of the federal government — putting more information about spending and where the money goes online.
As president, one of Obama’s initial acts was to order federal agencies to be transparent. Later, U.S. IT officials described plans to turn troves of government data into machine readable formats that developers and researchers could turn into mash ups and other tools .
But a U.S. House Subcommittee on Technology and Information Policy examining the effort to get the data to sites like USAspending.gov and data.gov say the government has not yet met those expectations.
A key problem slowing the effort is the quality of the data. For example, the Government Accountability Office and the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to government transparency, each have found incorrect data posted by federal agencies.
Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s executive director, cited to the committee a number of areas where the data was incomplete and inaccurate.
For instance, the face value of all student loans last year was reported online to be $6.9 trillion — an amount greater than the entire federal budget.
“Clearly, that number is wrong,” said Miller, at the committee’s hearing last Friday. Similarly, the GAO in random samples of grant awards said it found “numerous inconsistencies.”
Miller said agencies are using purpose-built internal systems to manage spending, and separate systems for public reporting purposes.
“In essence, they maintain two sets of books, one of which is habitually neglected,” said Miller.
Danny Harris, CIO of the U.S. Department of Education, told lawmakers that the effort to post the data has been hit with system integration issues. “Quality is having integrated systems such that human beings do not touch that data between the source and the reporting, and I think a large part of the reporting problem lies there,” he said
Supporting Harris’ point, Miller explained that USAspending.gov “is a relatively new phenomenon” and “the agencies are having trouble adjusting to the aggregator sites.”
The committee hearing drew the attendance of Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the full Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who called government transparency “the most important issue of this committee in the long run.”
Issa, citing his experience in the private sector (He was founder and CEO of Directed Electronics, a manufacturer of vehicle anti-theft devices), said that the idea that there would be data entry errors different from actual payments “was unheard of.”
“You are not giving people the honest results,” said Issa. “You are giving them somebody’s interpretation of the honest results.”
Daniel Werfel, controller of the White House Office of Management and Budget, defended the federal efforts and said that “unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability” have been delivered to the public.
But he added in prepared remarks that the government is also “setting the course for improved data quality” and that inter-agency work groups have been launched to ensure that their data can be reconciled.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Oak.), subcommittee chairman was also critical of the data problems, but also cited the overall effort by the administration as a plus.
“This is the first administration to make this kind of data available, and the first attempt will have some errors,” said Lankford. “It is not our intent to belittle the efforts of this administration, only to discover the important lessons learned.”