USAspending.gov shows where the money goes

The White House on Tuesday launched USAspending.gov, designed to give the public a look at thousands of information technology projects underway around the federal government. The site breaks down Fiscal Year 2009 spending on contracts, grants, loans, insurance, direct payments, and other assistance -- who's getting the money, who's allocating the money, and which agencies can't seem to keep their projects on track. The site so far tracks over $539 billion budgeted dollars in 781 "investments" comprising over 7,000 projects.

The agencies represented by the site are the 24 responsible for complying with the CFO Act of 1990. and the information is mainly derived from the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) and the Federal Assistant Award Data System -- or, for those familiar with the paperwork, Exhibit 53 and Exhibit 300 data, covering all investments and major investments respectively. Most of the data is about a month old, though some agencies are slower to submit data on grants or loans; going forward, the site should be updated with fresh FPDS data every two weeks.

Grants are, by the way, the largest portion of the IR budget at over $237 billion. Contracts are just behind at $221 billion, though, and contract information -- both dollars budgets and progress made -- is available for all 24 agencies. In addition, agencies are requested to provide ratings for the progress of their IT investments, and so far four agencies -- Transportation, Agriculture, the Veterans Administration, and the National Science Foundation -- have done so. (The rest have, according to the site, until the end of the month.)

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Considering that the five biggest government contractors are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon, it's possible that you won't be surprised that the agency with the most skin in the IT game is Defense, with over $33 billion committed. You can see the basic numbers for all agencies on the dashboard, which has pie and bar charts color-coded to show which projects are in good shape, in need of attention, or giving management fits. VA administrators, for instance, say that an alarming 63% of their projects are in trouble, though just two are having cost overruns; it's mostly that things are behind schedule.

What projects are these? Drilling down from the dashboard is, for policy and government wonks, like falling down a particularly comfy rabbit hole. We found drilling down through individual agencies to individual project overviews -- descriptions, details on contracts signed, schedule meltdowns, performance metrics, cost summaries -- wonderfully addictive. We looked at spending-overview maps and wondered why a nice (and populous) state like New Jersey is getting over a billion less in federal IT monies than a place like Georgia; we also wondered why Symantec has so many more federal contracts than McAfee (139 to 28).

Other than giving yourself an ulcer over the spending undertaken by whichever federal agency you think is overfunded, what's a site like this good for? The data is as mentioned slightly behind the times, so if you're tracking a specific project, this is a nice starting point but perhaps not a financial tool on the order of, say, a Mint.com for government. On the other hand, the site does a bang-up job of pointing you to projects you might never have known about. We found ourselves fascinated during our visit by the statistics for DHS, which has 79 projects underway -- more than any other agency. How can projects be more than a year behind on deliverables? Why do some of the same contractors' names keep coming up? Is Secure Flight seriously one of DHS's more "together" projects? The mind reels, but the mouse clicks onward.

Because they realize that this sort of thing is catnip to some people, the site's managers are promising a variety of features as the site builds out. Visitors will be able to build "portfolios" of investments they're watching, and some agencies may provide widgets specific to their needs. New data elements will be added, and it's believed that more information on historical performance will be provided as well -- and, if a proposed rule makes it into the Federal Register, subcontractor and subgrants data will one day be available as well.

The site itself is based on the software also powering fedspending.org, which has been tracking these stats since October 2007 and has data going back to FY 2000. FedSpending, in turn, is a nonprofit watchdog project run by OMB Watch. In a note on the FedSpending site, its managers say that "OMB Watch intends to continue to operate and upgrade FedSpending.org, adding new features and data to provide a more powerful accountability tool for citizens."

The proprietors of the site -- federal CIO Vivek Kundra's team -- are the first to note that USAspending.gov is still in its own kind of beta, with some fields not operating correctly and various structures -- projects belonging to more than one agency, for instance -- not yet accounted for in the system. But cut a fledgling some slack here: The project came together in six weeks, and was launched on data.gov after a few weeks of hands-on testing by any federal employee who wanted to drop by GSA headquarters to try it out.

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