Eight years ago, as a result of the Federal Funding and Accountability Act, the United States launched a website that would forever change U.S. government transparency efforts. In 2007, USASpending.gov commenced to provide information on federal contract and grant awards. For the first time, anyone could access a user friendly website and search for award information on federal contracts, purchase cards, grants, and loans.
Last week, the Department of the Treasury unveiled an upgraded version at OpenBeta.USASpending.gov. The phrase “Open Beta” in the new site’s URL reflects that this is a work in progress, not a finished product.
What’s New: Built-in Feedback, New Capabilities
Treasury Fiscal Assistant Secretary Dave Lebryk wrote in a Tuesday blog post, “The new OpenBeta.USAspending.gov provides a unique opportunity for the public to review, test, and provide feedback on data display and search functionality components that will inform Treasury’s efforts to support the needs of data users. Over the next two years, Treasury will add new features and functionalities for the public to review on a rolling basis. While the open beta site is available for public input, the USAspending.gov website will continue to be the official source for federal spending data.”
Two new tools, the Federal Grants Explorer and the Federal Contracts Explorer, will provide users search capabilities through federal contract and federal grant data.
No New Information Yet
The DATA Act requires Treasury and the White House Office of Management and Budget to dramatically expand the universe of information on federal spending that is available to the public. By May 2018, the federal government must publish comprehensive information on all federal spending – both internal spending, such as salaries and facilities, and also external grant and contract awards. That hasn’t happened yet. The new open beta website doesn’t offer new information – just new ways to navigate the grant and contract award information that existed before.
However, the new site does provide the infrastructure that will be needed to display the full breadth of federal spending, as the law requires a couple years hence. And the built-in feedback mechanism will allow the public to suggest improvements and take ownership all along the way.
Why Feedback Matters
Our friend Matt Rumsey at the Sunlight Foundation explains the feedback process in a recent blog post: “The agency has set up a number of feedback mechanisms and appear prepared to roll out new features as they are ready and as freshly standardized data starts flowing from agencies. … For those looking to provide feedback, the site has two convenient avenues to do so. First, a standard webform allows users to submit ideas. Much more exciting, however, is the community page. The message board format should encourage collaboration and consistent communication with a low barrier to entry—it’s not even necessary to create an account to post a comment.”
The feedback process is especially important for “Power users” of USASpending.gov, many of whom are Coalition members, and rely on bulk data downloads to power their platforms. The promise of open data to improve government accountability lies in the ability of these users to depend on the data sets that are available for bulk download. When companies like Govini and Enigma and FindTheBest have access to bulk data, they can build powerful platforms, employ visualizations, and deploy analytics. The feedback process will allow power users to directly and publicly register their critiques and press for resolution.