Data for billions in foreign aid missing from agency website

(ForeignAssistance.gov screenshot)

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A recent watchdog investigation found serious deficiencies in data reported by the State Department’s ForeignAssistance.gov website.

Government Accountability Office auditors found the site didn’t report more than $10 billion in disbursements and about $6 billion in obligations for fiscal year 2014 after comparing it to U.S. Agency for International Development-verified data.

And to top it off, auditors noted the State Department wasn’t fully transparent on their website about the limitations of the data it did provide.

“The absence of clear information on data limitations may undermine the goal of ForeignAssistance.gov to improve public knowledge and accountability of U.S. foreign assistance,” the report notes.

The State Department is required to update the website annually with USAID-verified data to “ensure quality” but has not been doing that, according to the report.

“State and USAID officials told GAO that they are unable to update ForeignAssistance.gov with verified data because of differences in their datasets,” according to the report’s summary.

In researching for the report, auditors looked at the State Department process for collecting and publishing data, and what obstacles agencies were facing when trying to collect and report their data. Auditors also compared fiscal year 2014 data on ForeignAssistance.gov with USAID data, and interviewed officials at several agencies and the OMB.

Most of the 10 agencies currently reporting data for the website said limitations in their IT systems and data availability were the key obstacles to collecting and reporting data, a GAO survey found.

“Based on interviews conducted prior to the survey, most agency officials noted that their existing IT systems were limited in that they did not track data at a level of detail required by ForeignAssistance.gov,” according to the report.

The auditors note data is published on the ForeignAssistance.gov website to “meet international commitments and domestic data transparency initiatives.”

“Because updating ForeignAssistance.gov with USAID verified data has not been feasible and the interagency assessment of the process to ensure sufficient quality control has not been done, gaps in data quality remain unaddressed, and users may risk using inaccurate or incomplete information for decision-making and accountability purposes,” the report notes.

The auditors recommended the State Department give reporting agencies guidance on how to identify the limitations of their data so those limitations can be reported on the website.

The GAO added that the State Department should also work with USAID and the OMB director to conduct a review of what work is done to ensure data quality, and to craft guidance on how to improve the website’s data quality.

The State Department and USAID agreed with the recommendations.

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Departments, State Department
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