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Government transparency website is missing billions of dollars, watchdogs report

Published time: August 05, 2014 20:36
Reuters / Laszlo Balogh

Reuters / Laszlo Balogh

A government audit has revealed that roughly $619 billion in federal grants and loans given out in fiscal year 2012 have not been properly accounted for.

The latest figures come courtesy of the US Government Accountability Office, who on Friday published a report in which it warned that much-needed oversight is all too absent from a federal awards website after it discovered gross instances of ”underreporting and inconsistencies” on USASpending.gov.

Although agencies generally reported required contract information, they did not properly report information on assistance awards (e.g., grants or loans), totaling approximately $619 billion in fiscal year 2012,” GAO researchers found while conducting the report. “Specifically, 33 of 37 agencies with a budget authority of at least $400 million reported at least one contract.”

According to the study, hundreds of programs across dozens of agencies were not properly accounted for on USASpending.gov — a website created by federal mandate “[t]o provide the public with information about how their tax dollars are spent.”

Citizens have a right and a need to understand where tax dollars are spent,” continues part of the USASpending.gov site. “Collecting data about the various types of contracts, grants, loans and other types of spending in our government will provide a broader picture of the Federal spending processes, and will help to meet the need of greater transparency.”

At GAO, however, researchers say that billions upon billions of dollars are not taken into consideration, allowing for major distortions with regards to what money is allocated and where it goes.

“Few awards on the website contained information that was fully consistent with agency records,” the GAO found, estimating that as many as 95 percent of the awards that should be online are at least partially inconsistent with what is required to be posted.

Among the agencies and programs at issue, USA Today reported, are the US Departments of Health and Human Services and the Interior, as well as even the White House.

According to USA Today’s Gregory Korte, the White House failed to report any programs whatsoever that it is directly responsible for. With regards to HHS, agents from that department reportedly failed to report nearly $544 billion in grants and loans.

Last June, the GAO added, the Office of Management and Budget issued a memorandum reminding government agencies to be consistent with filing agency records; the data analyzed by auditors all comes from the following fiscal year.

“While OMB placed responsibilities on agencies to ensure their reported information is accurate and substantiated by supporting documentation, this approach has had limited effect on the overall quality of the data on the website, reinforcing the need for a more comprehensive oversight process by OMB and more specific guidance from OMB on how agencies are to validate information reported to USASpending.gov. Until these weaknesses are addressed, any effort to use the data will be hampered by uncertainties about accuracy,” the GAO insists.

"OMB is committed to federal spending transparency and working with agencies to improve the completeness and accuracy of data submissions," Jamal Brown, a spokesperson for the office, told USA Today.

"We live in a world in which information drives decisions," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware), the chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, added to the paper. "And, given the budget constraints that our government faces, we need reliable information on how and where our money is being spent."