It’s been many years in the making, but spending data from the U.S. Federal Government is now all unified in one source that can be accessed by anyone.
The significance of this cannot be overstated – every single department of the government is now reporting data to the U.S. Treasury in a common format, and this information is being published online at USASpending.gov.
The data puts records of accounts, budgets, grants, and contracts all in one place, and links this information together in way that has never been done before. Everyday citizens, journalists, and data scientists will be able to see how the government spends money with one consolidated view. Further, this harmonization of accounts will also help to boost transparency, making it easier to spot inefficiencies, waste, and fraud at the federal level.
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Here’s an example of a “big picture” output – a view of all 2016 spending in one easy chart.
Federal Government Spending
For the interactive version of the above chart that details $3.85 trillion of federal expenditures and what is included in each account, go to the USASpending.gov site. To dive deeper into millions of data points for each individual transaction record, you’ll probably want to access the API.
It’s Not Perfect, Yet
As with all large government projects, it’s probably not a surprise to learn that the project isn’t exactly working optimally yet. Upon mucking around on the site, certain maps are not yet generating, and the API site was down when we tried to access it:
Part of the problem is that the DATA Act of 2014, which laid the groundwork for the initiative, had specified a deadline (May 9, 2017) for all agencies to be reporting data in a unified format. Obviously, harmonizing thousands of legacy financial reporting systems from dozens of federal departments is not an easy task.
Deloitte, in a joint report with the Data Coalition trade association, recognizes these technical challenges, while also outlining additional problems that must be addressed with the DATA Act and corresponding systems by 2022.
Hudson Hollister, the Founder and Executive Director at Data Coalition, outlined the significance and challenges of harmonizing government data in a blog post today.
He also referenced something interesting, which is that this idea was outlined initially by Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century. In fact, it was in 1802 that Jefferson wrote to his Treasury Secretary to tell him that the government’s finances were too convoluted for Congress to understand, and this complexity enabled debt and spending to spiral out of control.
His solution at the time? To harmonize all government expenditures in one place:
If to this can be added a simplification of the form of accounts in the treasury department, and in the organization of its officers, so as to bring everything to a single centre, we might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress, and every man of any mind in the Union, should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.
– Thomas Jefferson, Library of Congress (1802)
Hollister notes that it is only now that Jefferson’s vision has been realized.
Hopefully, with some refinement and continued buy-in from government and industry stakeholders, this means more transparent government finances for the foreseeable future.
Article by Jeff Desjardins, Visual Capitalist