The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness short of data on $619 billion worth of grants and awards

The U.S. Capitol (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Launched in December 2007, was meant as a way of tapping modern technology to hand the American public the means to track what the federal government spends. But a new report from the Government Accountability Office found that, in 2012 at least, more than $619 billion in federal awards that should be accounted for on the site weren't.

Agencies, GAO found, are generally reporting on the contracts that they hand out. What's missing from the site are grants and awards, a range of federal spending that covers everything from agricultural development to research on new naval reconnaissance. The absent data represents a considerable slice of the trillion dollars that the U.S. government spends on grants, loans and similar programs in a year. (To compile the "known universe" of award data, GAO says, researchers consulted the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance and the Public Budget Database.)

The issue, says the author of the GAO report, seems often to be that agencies aren't aware that they should be reporting that non-contract data. The researchers used 2012 numbers to allow the time to fully vet the data set. And after GAO let it be known that the information was missing, said the GAO staffer, many agencies responded by belatedly posting the data.

Still, even when it comes to the data posted in timely fashion to the site, the results weren't terrific. Somewhere between 2 and 7 percent of all awards had complete records — that is, 21 data elements, from award titles to details about which congressional district the award was spent in, were accurately checked. was launched to great fanfare in 2007, the product of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. "Technology makes it possible for every American to know what is happening and to hold elected officials accountable," said one of its congressional sponsors, then-Senator Barack Obama.