WASHINGTON — The nation’s capital is a place of paradoxes.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that at a time when the federal government is in a recurring standoff over spending, one of the key mechanisms that the public can use to track federal spending was defunded last year.
After nearly 30 years, the U.S. Census Bureau stopped publishing the Consolidated Federal Funds Report, a document that detailed how much federal money flows into states and helped contextualize changes in spending.
Fortunately, this kind of spending is being tracked on a new website, USASpending.gov.
There’s just one problem: the new statistics don’t match up with the old data.
And, so far, no one on the federal side contacted by Civil Beat has been able to explain why.
“You have run into what is a really sort of unknown abomination,” said Becky Sweger, director of data and technology for the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government spending.
Under what claims to be “the most transparent administration in history,” she says, “we have lost much of the ability to track these dollars in states.”
She said that she found “the same huge discrepancies” that we did.
Sweger explained that the old reporting system — the consolidated funds report — compiled data from dozens of federal agencies and outlined federal awards, contracts and salaries. The people who prepared that report then parsed this information down to the county level for each state.
This sort of breakdown enabled Civil Beat to demonstrate in 2011 that Hawaii had crossed the $20-billion threshold, and that just four other states benefited from a higher level of federal spending per capita.
But the new website doesn’t go into county-level detail, and it doesn’t lay out federal salaries or adjust federal spending sums per capita. In other words, it doesn’t contextualize state-by-state data in a way that enables individual states to see how they’re faring compared to other states. This is a key measure for Hawaii, a state that gets a relatively large amount of federal money in proportion to its small population.
So far, we haven’t had any luck with repeated attempts to find anyone at USASpending.gov who can explain why the 2010 data on its website doesn’t match up with the consolidated funds report for that year. The Census Bureau — which produced the old consolidated funds reports — says it no longer employs anyone who is capable of interpreting this kind of data.
The bottom line, General Services Administration spokeswoman Cara Battaglini explained, is that the aggregate data on USASpending.gov has some flaws, though it’s not easy to determine exactly what they are. Our inquiry to USASpending.gov wound up on Battaglini’s desk, except her specialty is federal contracting, so the question of total funding per state is outside her purview.
When we asked Battaglini for a referral to someone who could better explain the discrepancies between the two measures, she suggested we talk to the people who prepared the consolidated funds report. But the U.S. Census Bureau said its institutional knowledge about the report was scrapped when the old measurement system was defunded.
“I am not aware of any resources and don’t have any details about that program,” a Census spokesperson wrote in an email. “That staff is no longer with the bureau.”
It’s worth noting that the new website has its benefits — USASpending.gov allows for more robust tracking of some federal contracts, and details expenditures in new and sometimes interesting ways. For instance, the new report lists the firms that get the most lucrative federal contracts for work in Hawaii, and what sorts of goods and services they’re providing. (See related article.)
Still, it’s difficult to put much of the data in context.
And more troublingly, Battaglini says, it isn’t clear who is in charge of oversight for USASpending.gov data. In other words, if you have questions about the data, it’s not apparent who is available to answer them.
“USAspending is a compilation of a ton of data streams from various OTHER databases,” Battaglini wrote in an email. “I’m not really sure who owns it but it’s fed by a ton of other things.”
This means USASpending.gov offers more details, but less “completeness and accuracy,” Sweger summarized.
She also laments a loss of continuity, given that the previous system went back to 1983. “So at a time when everybody’s fighting over how we’re spending,” Sweger said, “we can’t really track how we’re spending.”
But she is hopeful that “nerds will unite” to demand more effective and reliable data tracking from the federal government.
For now, though, it’s hard to know for sure precisely how much federal funding Hawaii is actually getting, how that amount compares with previous years and with other states, and who — if anyone — is keeping track of it.
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