This is one in a regular series exploring how federal agencies are finding and implementing innovative ways to drive efficiency and cut costs.
The GAO is getting ready to dig deeper into the $1 trillion annually that the government spends on contracts, grants and loans to determine if taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely so that government agencies can make better decisions on making those awards, according to a GAO official.
“We want to go back and take a look again,” said Stanley J. Czerwinski, director of intergovernmental relations at the GAO, referencing an earlier study on government spending and accountability. He said the last time the Government Accountability Office took a look, in 2010, “we pulled a sample of data elements and then traced them back. We found problems every element that we pulled,” he said. While USAspending.gov http://www.usaspending.gov/ , the site that tracks government contracting, has gotten better data since then, he said, the GAO believes problems remain.
The spending data is made available so that the public can see where taxpayer dollars are going and to which companies. In addition, government agencies are better able to make informed decisions about contracting and the awarding of funds.
“It’s about transparency,” Czerwinski said. “At the level of people who are awarding the grants and those receiving the grants, there are accountability issues.”
In testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee earlier this month, U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro, said, while the USAspending.gov site has been improved and the quality of its data upgraded, “OMB has not implemented plans to create a data quality dashboard on USAspending.gov and has produced only one of the required annual reports to Congress on the usage of the site.”
Part of the problem, is that USAspending.gov only included some government agencies, not all, he said, and that some of the data received from the contractors is inaccurate or out of date.
Members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee have written a letter to GAO requesting an updated analysis of the government contracting and this will spur GAO to act, Czerwinski said.
The GAO also took a look at recovery.gov, the website devoted to tracking the funds allocated and spent by the 2009 Recovery Act. Here, it found, the tracking and accountability was better. Among the lessons learned from the recovery.gov site, which should be emulated by USAspending.gov and other agencies, GAO said, were:
• Training and other assistance was provided to recipients to clarify reporting requirements and address early system problems.
• After early reporting and quality issues were identified, OMB required agencies to ensure data accuracy and completeness.
• Recipients made errors in reporting data, but these could be reduced through pre-populating data fields and other refinements to the reporting process.
Czwerinski in particular praised the Recovery Board, for taking seriously the reporting requirements and making sure that the funds allocated by the act were appropriately tracked.
He said that initially, states that got funds under the Recovery Act were reticent to comply with the reporting requirements and the tracking of the funds, saying that the job was too burdensome.
“States said it was a really big burden, but they needed the money so they did it,” he said. “Now they say they couldn’t imagine being without this data.”
He suggested that companies which receive government funds would similarly benefit.
Congress praised the GAO for digging so deeply into government contract spending.
“These aren’t the kind issues that get a lot of headlines, but these are the kind of issues that save a lot of money, said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del. “Exposing what we do, good and bad, will for the most part help us do a better job.”