Treasury’s fixes to USASpending.gov begin with mapping, navigation

The Treasury Department has heard the complaints about the USASpending.gov portal. It’s hard to use, and the data quality and accuracy is poor.

Treasury inherited the portal in February from the General Services Administration, and it already has short-and long-term plans to improve the federal spending website.

Christina Ho, the executive director for data transparency in the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, said the short-term plans begin by focusing on usability. She said users should see those improvements by March 2015.

“One thing we are doing is leveraging the Recovery.gov infrastructure and expertise. We know that their website has received a lot of compliments,” Ho said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “We went to them, talked to them to understand what they are doing. So we are going to do the geocoding — the mapping capabilities that everybody loves. Right now, USASpending has a map. You hover over it and it gives you an amount. But the actual geocoding will allow you to drill down by locality.”

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The second short-term goal is to improve USASpending.gov navigation, so users can find what they need in a matter of only a few clicks. A third goal is to simplify the search and write directions and information in plain English instead of government talk.

FFATA implementation falls short

All of these short-term changes stem from almost seven years of frustration and complaints about the system called for under the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA), sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R- Okla.) and then Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

The most recent report from the Government Accountability Office found only 2 to 7 percent of awards listed were entirely consistent when checked against agencies’ records. GAO said the most common data inconsistency were descriptions of an award’s place of performance. The names of recipients are the most consistent between records and online.

The Office of Management and Budget tried several times to address USASpending problems. In June 2013, OMB set a deadline of November 2014 for agencies to develop a process to improve the data quality on the site, in part by requiring the use of a single Federal Award Identification Number (FAIN) for all actions associated with any given federal assistance award. Agencies also have to validate prime award data and continually attest to its accuracy on the USASpending portal.

In May 2009, OMB detailed the “chronic” problems in a letter to Coburn, saying it hoped the Recovery.gov website would begin to correct some of the long-standing problems.

And now with President Obama signing the DATA Act into law in May, USASpending.gov once again comes under pressure to deliver on these new mandates.

Ho said the DATA Act fits well with the site’s long-term vision.

“The DATA Act requires all of these additional expenditures to be posted by Treasury that includes some of the elements, such as outlays by different appropriation accounts. Those are the types of data elements that are in the financial systems at agencies, or sometimes Treasury has it too,” she said. “So when we think about our implementation of the DATA Act and also our long- term goal, we really are focusing on getting better access to the data not only for the public, but for the agencies. We need to get some value out of what we do, because this is a significant effort and it will really transform how the government makes decisions if we do it right.”

Collaboration key to implement DATA Act

Treasury is hosting the first public town hall meeting on the DATA Act Sept. 26 at the Commerce Department. Among the topics expected to be discussed are the implementation of the law, transforming financial management reporting through standardized data exchanges and standardizing data element definitions.

“What’s on USASpending today is within the scope of the DATA Act, so I think it’s very reasonable to expect when we implement the DATA Act that will really be the future of USASpending. Whether we call it that is something we will have to figure out down the road,” she said. “We are working very closely with OMB to make sure that we structure this implementation effort in an effective way. This act impacts multiple communities, and the different communities also already have had efforts going on with data standards, and we need to make sure we leverage all of that and bring them together instead of starting from scratch.”

Ho said Treasury and OMB will count on the CFO, CAO and CIO councils as part of the DATA Act’s governance structure.

Aside from the DATA Act work, Ho said Treasury needs to focus on the aesthetics of the portal. She said the design and presentation of the data is part of the usability problems.

“Right now you cannot search prime award and sub award together. You have to toggle between the two. We want to be able to allow users to do that,” she said. “Right now also you can see individual transactions, which makes it hard for people to see the total award. We also have to allow people to start at the summary level first and then drill down to get to the details. Those are some examples that would be really helpful for the users.”

As for the data quality issues, Ho said that’s a more long-term challenge. She said Treasury doesn’t want to correct the poor quality data in the system today.

“The best approach is really making sure we can access data at the source. We can architect the solution in a way that would improve data quality,” she said. “For example, right now the USASpending, as it was originally designed, the data all comes from what I would call management systems, like grants, and procurement systems. Last year, OMB issued a data quality memo and asked the financial community to reconcile the data to the financial system. Well, there are differences between those two systems. There are timing differences. We need to make sure we design an approach that really gets the data for what’s its intended for and in the right context.”

That approach is currently called Treasury’s 360 vision — part of its long-term goal.

Ho said the 360 vision is to present data throughout its lifecycle, from appropriations to final payments.

She said the data resides in disparate systems across the government, so Treasury is working on the best approach to bringing all that information together.

The 360 vision is one of the many lessons learned that Treasury is borrowing from the Recovery Board.

Another is to take a data-centric approach and embed the rules within the data.

“I hope we will do a good job in presenting the data in the right context, which is why the 360 vision is key,” she said. “We need to make sure data is accessible for different typesof users. Some users really don’t care about the graphical user interface; they just want to download the data. Some users are more interested in playing with the data on a specific platform to create charts. Some users just want to go on a website and explore. We need to be able to meet all those needs.”

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