Agencies fall short in reporting spending data

Monday - 3/14/2011, 7:02am EDT

WFED's Jared Serbu

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By John Buckner and Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

Federal agencies misreported $1.2 trillion in spending in fiscal year 2009, a nonprofit group said Friday.

The Sunlight Foundation examined the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA), a repository of information on agencies' grant spending, and compared it against the amounts reported in USASpending.gov.

USASpending.gov, created by legislation in 2006, was designed to track all federal grant and contract spending. The Sunlight Foundation announced its findings in testimony before a Friday hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform.

"We can send folks to the moon, but we can't keep up with where the money is going. That is a major problem," said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). "The federal government must be held strictly accountable for its expenditures and taxpayers' hard-earned dollars."

For instance, the Sunlight Foundation found that the Department of Agriculture website lists spending of $12.7 billion for school breakfast and lunch programs. On USASpending.gov, however, the agency reported only $250,000 of the costs.

"Until agencies begin to take their reporting responsibilities more seriously, federal spending transparency will remain an unfulfilled promise," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation in her written testimony to the committee.

USDA chief information officer Chris Smith said there was an explanation for the irregularity. He said agencies do not have to report to USASpending.gov any expenditure of less than $25,000, or any payment to an individual or federal employee.

The Office of Management and Budget is looking at ways eliminate inconsistencies in the data. OMB wants to take the initiatives used in the success of Recovery.gov and apply it to USASpending.gov.

OMB controller Danny Werfel said there is a robust audit process in place for basic financial statements, but that the same rigor has not been applied to the data that is presented on USASpending.gov.

"We think that we need to look at that audit process and reporting model to potentially realign some of that audit scrutiny around spending information," said Werfel.

Werfel also said that the vigilance under the Recovery Act made a difference.

"Interagency work groups have been launched with the commitment to drive the high quality of federal spending information," he said.

USDA reports its federal financial assistance to USASpending.gov every year. USDA reported $30 billion to-date in fiscal 2011 and its initial error rate was 3.4 percent.

"Today we have implemented automated reporting processes and reduced our error rate to less than one-tenth of a percent," said Smith.

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John Buckner is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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