Refreshed USASpending Website Irks Some Transparency Advocates

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The work-in-progress known as government transparency took a new twist on April 1 when the Treasury Department unveiled “improvements” to the USAspending.gov website aimed at providing easy public access to data on federal contracts, grants and financial assistance governmentwide.

David Lebryk, Treasury’s fiscal assistant secretary, in a blog post described the change -- done in response to external feedback-- as improving “navigation to allow users to more directly summarize spending data” and to take advantage of a platform borrowed from the award-winning Recovery.gov website used to track spending on the 2009 stimulus legislation.

The refreshed website is supposed to be easier to navigate and understand (it uses plain language instead of government jargon); provide interactive mapping of prime recipients’ localities and enhanced agency and state financial data summaries; connect subcontract award data to prime awards; and expand search capabilities for simplified titles.

The site also has “improved validation checks to prevent users from entering inaccurate data or leaving the fields blank,” Lebryk wrote.

First mandated by the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, USASpending was taken over by Treasury in 2014 in anticipation of other enrichments to publicly available data required under the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

Treasury has asked for feedback, and the results from transparency specialists so far are mixed.

“The site is more visually appealing, and the search results are clearer and more easily accessible,” Robert Shea, a onetime Office of Management and Budget official who helped launch USASpending.gov. Now a principal with Grant Thornton LLP, Shea told Government Executive, “That won’t hide the fact that the quality of data on the site is not what it should be, but I know that’s something the government is working very hard on.”

Transparency activists, such as Hudson Hollister of the Data Transparency Coalition, have long criticized USA spending for lacking standardized data and material on internal expenditures and payments to individuals.

A critique by FierceGovernment said the changes “stripped the site of some critical functionality,” particularly for advanced searches, wrote editor Molly Bernhart Walker. She quoted an anonymous market intelligence executive saying the entire contracting community will be “pissed” that it is now more difficult to determine which contracts have been awarded.

No longer can USASpending.gov users search government purchases by product and service code or by the North American Industry Classification System code, which classifies types of contractors, or by indefinite delivery vehicles and procurement instrument identifier, FierceGovernment wrote, all done in the name of simplification for the public. “The update also eliminated search by parent company --  only subsidiaries are now enabled; removed keyword search capabilities; eliminated date range filtering; and limited data exports from advanced search from more than 200 fields to only 12 fields.”

Sean Moulton, director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, told Government Executive that the “overall look is more engaging, draws people in, and encourages you to do basic searches, which is good.” He also admires the agency profiles and state-by-state summaries of federal funds received.

“But then it falls apart once you try and dig into data, and the site becomes much less useful,” Moulton said. “You can’t sort by new columns, which is so basic once you have results. One big function they dropped is the key word or free-text search,” he added, noting that contracts and grants contain fields that describe what work is being done, which are best found through key words such as “cancer research” or “construction” that are no longer as useful.

Moulton also criticized some maps on USASpending, which responds to search for contractors by zip code with a single small dot for dozens of items. “That’s not really using the mapping function,” he said, although he approves of some of the agency profile maps. He has requested that Treasury temporarily restore the previous site with the now-discontinued functions.

Correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated the company name Grant Thornton LLP.  

(Image via mdgn/Shutterstock.com)

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