OMB Offers an Easy Way to Follow the Money

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Robert Shea is a Republican insider with a head for business and a yen for federal program performance standards. Gary Bass is a government watchdog with a mean bite who wants openness and knows how to get it.

Official antagonists, political opposites, brought together by a wild, crazy idea: federal budget transparency. Online and searchable. Free for the asking.

Today, the White House budget office officially launches, a Web site that shows taxpayers where their dollars go and which legislators, contractors and regions get the most.

The site was created by Shea, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget. It was modeled on a site pioneered by Bass, director of OMB Watch, one of the budget office's harshest nonprofit critics.

"They were very cooperative and supportive when they recognized we were trying to do the right thing -- even before I was paying them," Shea says of OMB Watch.

"Normally, we come to bury Caesar, not praise him," Bass says of Shea. "But they are doing something that's very cool, that's very innovative in government."

The story began late last year, when two other political opposites, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), sponsored legislation requiring the federal government to set up a searchable online database tracing federal budget spending by Jan. 1, 2008.

The goal was to make both the executive branch and Congress accountable for their spending decisions by allowing regular taxpayers to follow the money.

The legislation was the realization of a dream long held by a coalition of libertarians and liberals, fiscal conservatives and social-justice types, all of whom believe that greater budget transparency is the ideal way to achieve that accountability.

The government already provided some information, but it was scattered among agencies, confusing and largely inaccessible.

OMB Watch had gone many steps better with, a site with features similar to those demanded by the legislation.

Bass wrote to Shea, offering to share the watchdog group's experience in setting up its site.

"OMB Watch spends a great deal of its efforts criticizing what I do the rest of my day, trying to improve program performance, [so] my level of interest in cooperating with them was very low," Shea said.

But the deadline was looming, so Shea and Bass met, several times.

Then early this year, Shea said he figured, "OMB Watch had already proven it could be done, so why do it from scratch?"

The budget office set up competitive bidding for the job, which OMB Watch won, working through a certified government contractor because "they didn't want to get their hands dirty," Shea said. The nonprofit group was paid $600,000 for the software and worked with the OMB to improve it.

USASpending allows users to search by contracts and grants, contractor names, congressional districts and lawmakers. The data can be easily downloaded and used. A "wiki" function gives users a chance to suggest changes and add information. Charts and rankings show to whom and where the bulk of federal dollars go.

The site goes further than the law demands, posting information every two weeks rather than every month and providing information on whether the contracts were subject to competitive bidding.

Ultimately, the OMB plans for agencies to send information directly to the site, so it will appear in real time. And -- it was ready two weeks before deadline.

"It's a work in progress. The site doesn't include as much data as we want, but we are like a gerbil in an exercise wheel, loading data as we speak," Shea said.

"It's cutting-edge. And they're doing it -- that's the key thing," Bass said.

Now spending wonks and even regular taxpayers have two sites to choose from: OMB Watch's remains online as an alternate source of information -- and as a check on the OMB's own efforts.

It's a "friendly competition," Shea said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company