Feds Launch Spending Transparency Web Site

Published March 1, 2008

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has accomplished an early launch of USASpending.gov, a Web site that allows taxpayers to track how the federal government spends their tax dollars.

The site was mandated by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, also known as the Coburn-Obama bill after its main sponsors, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Barack Obama (D-IL). The site launched December 13.

Coburn, who spoke at the launch briefing in Washington, DC, commended OMB for successfully mastering a “Herculean task” that will lift a veil on what happens in Washington and help ensure a free society.

“The only thing that enables us to have a free society is transparency,” Coburn said. “It will make the government more efficient through its accounting and financial management.”

Partnership Key

Robert Shea, OMB’s associate director of administration and government performance, who led the development of USASpending.gov, unveiled the Web site and led the audience through a virtual tour.

Shea said he initially doubted whether the task given to him by Congress could be accomplished. He credited a partnership with the watchdog organization OMBWatch, which had previously created a Web site that already incorporated many features similar to those required by the 2006 legislation.

“We saw what could be done when OMBWatch launched their version, and we partnered with them,” Shea said.

Less Than $1M Spent

Shea explained the administration purchased the software on which OMBWatch’s Web site was based for about $600,000 and created the entire database for less than $1 million.

The Web site, accessible at http://www.USASpending.gov and http://www.federalspending.gov, allows taxpayers to access comprehensive information on federal expenditures, including grants and contracts above $25,000. Among other things, the information includes recipient, award, basic details on the transaction, and funding agency.

In addition, several features not required by the legislation have been incorporated, such as providing information on the level of competition of a contract and a wiki forum allowing a feedback discussion.

A Washington Times editorial argued the Web site is shedding “too little light,” but added it “does provide real insight into government’s operations, including some genuine outrages, given a little computerized elbow grease.”

Picture Grows Clearer

Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy for OMBWatch, thinks the Web site is a terrific first step toward greater transparency in federal government spending.

“The site gives us a much clearer picture of federal spending, and the fact that it leads us to a series of new questions shouldn’t detract from the fact that it quickly and easily answers so many questions that previously were so frustratingly elusive,” Moulton said. “However, I would agree that the biggest remaining limitation is the data itself, the lack of details, etc.”

Taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist applauded OMB for creating the Web site and said more remains to be done at the federal level.

“USASpending.gov is a huge step in the right direction. Taxpayers are continually asked to put more money into government coffers, with little access to information on how their money is being spent,” said Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

“Finally, some light is being shed. We would welcome additional improvements, such as the inclusion of the actual expenditure document, which so far is not required by law,” Norquist added.

Momentum Builds

Norquist believes the launch of the Web site will create momentum at the state and local levels to open up expenditures to more public scrutiny.

“The launch of the Web site at the federal level will spur the movement of transparency in government spending at the state and local levels even further than the enabling legislation did,” Norquist said.

In 2007, Hawaii, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Texas passed legislation mandating the creation of comprehensive Web sites for state expenditures. Several other states–including Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas–have already taken executive action or are looking to do so.

Localities Join In

The movement for transparency in government spending is not limited to federal and state efforts. Currently 58 Texas school districts are posting their check registers online, with more districts expected to follow.

Other states, including Florida, are also considering local transparency projects.

Companies including Google and Microsoft have offered to partner with states interested in offering greater scrutiny. OMBWatch has announced plans to go open-source with its software, making the source code available to the public free of charge, with no licensing restrictions, so other organizations or individuals can use it as they see fit.

Proponents of the movement for transparency in government spending believe this action, plus the fact the federal Web site cost less than $1 million, defies naysayers who often claim achieving transparency in government spending is too costly to pursue.

Sandra Fabry ([email protected]) is state government affairs manager at Americans for Tax Reform.

For more information …

The federal government’s spending Web site: http://www.USASpending.gov or http://www.atr.org