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Googling Your Tax Dollars?
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Posted On October 2, 2006
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The Consolidated Federal Funds Report (CFFR) "is a summary report of Federal spending on a geographic basis by State, county, and sub-county. This report is published every year by the Census Bureau and is distributed publicly, as well as to Congress" ( Senate Report 109-329, Federal Funding Accountability And Transparency Act of 2006: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/cpquery/T?&report=sr329&dbname=109&).

These three databases are important tools, and much of the data will be used to create the database required by Public Law 109-282. However, the database will need to be much more robust and functional than what currently exists. Bass' Senate testimony and the subcommittee's own final report both document in detail the weaknesses of the three major data sources. FPDS-NG does not require all federal agencies to send reports to FPDS—capturing a comprehensive picture of all federal contracts from all federal agencies would require the individual to ask each agency to provide this information. Furthermore, the Senate report also states that the "database is undependable, often providing data that is unusable or unreliable."

Bass reported in his testimony that the database "is too difficult and confusing to use. Search function appears to only search pre-prepared reports, charts, tables, and statistics rather than the database itself." OMB Watch staff members have spent a great deal of time working with FPDS-NG, and they were unable "to figure out how to obtain information about a particular company or a particular contract or if it was even possible to find such information in the system" (http://hsgac.senate.gov/_files/071806Bass.pdf).

FAADS is provided by the Census Bureau on a quarterly basis and is quite easy to download. However, the Census Bureau makes it clear that FAADS is not a database. It is a "sequential text file that can only be ‘read' by a custom-written computer program" (http://hsgac.senate.gov/_files/071806Bass.pdf).

Another critical weakness of FAADS is "each quarterly report is independent of the one that came before it and does not reflect total awards given in a certain fiscal year." To have a complete picture, all of the previous reports would need to be obtained and compiled (Senate Report 109-329—Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006; http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/cpquery/T?&report=sr329&dbname=109&).

The CFFR is an annual report from the Census Bureau, but the data is provided in "aggregate form, meaning users cannot obtain information about specific awards or search on any particular fields of interest other than the aggregate tables provides by the Census Bureau" (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/cpquery/R?cp109:FLD010:@1(sr329) and http://hsgac.senate.gov/_files/071806Bass.pdf).

The data collected and made available in FPDS-NG, FAADS, and CFFR do not fulfill the requirements of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. A new searchable system will have to be created and made available by January 2008.

Googling your tax dollars sounds easy—put in a search and out pop the answers to questions about where the federal government spends the money it collects from the American public. However, building a database that combines ease of use, accommodates multiple users at all knowledge and technical levels, and provides reliable search results will be a considerable challenge. The intent of the legislation is to build a system that uses the data from these existing databases but looks and acts like a commercial search engine.

According to CQ Today, OMB has stated that it will "immediately start implementing the law once the President signs it." In other press reports, government officials "believe that with a few tweaks, FPDS-NG is the best place to start for the new database" ("Passage of Database Bill is Just the Start," Government Computer News, 9/25/2006). These statements are cause for concern. Given the problems with the existing database resources and given the limited time frame for making the database available (January 2008), it is really important that OMB do the job right.

Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, commented that it appears that OMB is "unfamiliar with the existing databases in terms of how they function and how easy it is to manipulate the data and provide the functionality as required by the law. Developing a new database is a real challenge." Moulton should know this well. He is leading the effort to build a database that will do exactly what the legislation has required. OMB Watch will be releasing on Oct. 10, 2006, the Web site FedSpending.org, a searchable database that will allow searchers to "access information about federal contracts, grants, insurance, loans, and direct payments." (Letter from Gary Bass: OMB Watch Launches FedSpending.org to Shed Light on Government Spending, http://www.ombwatch.org/article/articleview/3608/1/464).

Moulton has spent a lot of time looking at the data from FPDS-NG, FAADS, and CFFR, and he has gotten his hands dirty by looking under the hood, so to speak. He explained some of the quality control problems with the data—multiple spellings of agencies (Department of Agriculture, USDA, Dept. of Ag, Dept. of Agriculture), misspellings, lack of quality control, and no effort to impose uniformity on the data. Adam Hughes, director of Federal Fiscal Policy at OMB Watch, also remarked that much of the data collected in the existing databases "is not detailed enough." The current databases do not capture key information that describes what the contractor or grantee will do to fulfill the contract/award. The information is either incomplete or lacks sufficient detail to really understand what services the contractor or grantee will perform. Multiply this by millions and millions of records and you have a huge challenge to make a database that will be useful to both laypeople and professional researchers.

The goal to have a Google-like search engine for tax dollars is a terrific idea. It will be a real shining example and triumph of transparent and accountable government, but both Moulton and Hughes agree it will require considerable technical expertise to build a database that is easy to use and that provides reliable search results. The last point—reliable search results—speaks to the issue of better data. The database will only be as good as the data included in it. The current data collection process needs dramatic improvement and upgrades—better quality control and oversight of the data is essential for this to really work. So far, no one from OMB has contacted OMB Watch to discuss what they have learned about building a federal spending database. Let's not reinvent the wheel if we don't have to. The bloggers who actively supported the bill and focused their attention and time on getting the bill through Congress and onto President Bush's desk need to continue to keep the pressure on Congress and OMB to ensure that the end product—this Google search engine of federal dollars—is as advertised.


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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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