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Googling Your Tax Dollars?
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Posted On October 2, 2006
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If you are an advocate for transparency, disclosure, accountability, and open government then you will celebrate President George W. Bush's signing of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) of 2006 (S.2590; http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c109:s2590:) on Sept. 26, 2006. The law represents a merger of the principles of open, accountable, and transparent government and e-government technologies to create an easy and accessible means for the American public to learn how the government spends its tax dollars. The law requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to set up a freely available, Internet-based, searchable database of all federal contracts and grants worth more than $25,000 by Jan. 1, 2008. President Bush, in his signing statement about the bill, remarked that the database will allow "Americans to Google their tax dollars."

Typically, when Americans hear about how their tax dollars are spent, the stories usually center on embarrassing revelations of government waste, fraud, mismanagement, and abuse. Not surprisingly, recent political polls show that approval for Congress is well below 30 percent. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who is one of the original co-sponsors of S.2590, stated bluntly before the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security (July 18, 2006): "How can we expect the American people to have confidence in us when all they hear about is overcharging and overpayments, pork-barrel projects like the Bridge to Nowhere, and money being wasted on frivolous expenses?" (http://hsgac.senate.gov/_files/071806Obama.pdf).

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch (http://www.ombwatch.org), a watchdog group in Washington, D.C., who testified at the same Senate hearing, stated: "The current government systems to provide access to this information simply don't work. Information about federal spending and tax activities is difficult to obtain for the general public, researchers, and journalists." With this legislation, "the public will be much more likely and able to question their elected representatives, uproot and decrease both unethical and corrupt behavior, and address inappropriate allocation of federal resources." Just as important as identifying bad behavior, Bass made an important point: "[T]he public will be able to better appreciate the scope and importance of the federal investment in our communities, and possibly participate more actively in shaping the policies that govern our federal spending" (http://hsgac.senate.gov/_files/071806Bass.pdf).

The new legislation specifically requires the following information:

  • The name of the entity receiving the award
  • The amount of the award
  • Information on the award including transaction type, funding agency, the North American Industry Classification System code or Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance number (where applicable), program source, and an award title that's descriptive of the purpose of each funding action
  • The location of the entity receiving the award and the primary location of performance under the award, including the city, state, congressional district, and country
  • A unique identifier of the entity receiving the award and of the parent entity of the recipient, should the entity be owned by another entity
  • Any other relevant information specified by the Office of Management and Budget

The federal government captures much of this information in several existing databases and reports—most notably the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG; https://www.fpds.gov), the Federal Assistance Awards Data System (FAADS; http://www.census.gov/govs/www/faads.html), and the Consolidated Federal Funds (CFFR; http://www.census.gov/govs/www/cffr.html). Other important data resources include the Federal Audit Clearinghouse (FAC; http://harvester.census.gov/sac), the RAND Database of Research and Development (RaDiUS; https://radius.rand.org), and the National Endowment for the Arts (http://www.nea.gov) Web site.

The law states that OMB can use the data from these different government databases as well as information available from the government Web site, Grants.gov (http://www.grants.gov), but it has to make this database a single-searchable site that combines all of this information in a single-searchable database. OMB will not be in compliance if it puts up a page that just has links to the various existing sites. The law requires that OMB provide a search engine that enables users to search for information from a single location on federal contracts and grants. The goal is to be able to do a search on "Hurricane Katrina" or "stem-cell research" and have a complete list of all entities that have received federal dollars either in the form of a federal contract or a federal grant.

The Federal Procurement Database System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG) is the primary database on federal contracting. The database, created in 1978, provides a "central repository for all Federal contracting information" and "make[s] that information publicly available."

The Federal Assistance Awards Database System (FAADS) "is the primary source of information on Federal Grants. It was created in 1980 to be the central source for information on all federal assistance awards and is administered by the Census Bureau."


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Laura Gordon-Murnane has an M.L.S. and works in Washington, D.C. She writes frequently for Searcher.

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