Central government spending data repository USASpending.gov now curates access to an additional kind of budget data — Congressional Budget Justifications. And transparency advocates say it’s a step in the right direction.
A visit to the “Agencies” tab on the site now yields a list of links to 64 out of 101 agency budget justifications for fiscal year 2020 — plain-language documents in which federal agencies explain how they plan to spend any appropriated money. Transparency advocacy group Demand Progress first pointed this out in its First Branch Forecast newsletter Aug. 12, and the USASpending itself tweeted about the development earlier in the month — #federalbudget #transparency.
Why’s this a big deal?
It’s a first step in the direction of a central repository for these key budgeting documents. While the White House Office of Management and Budget requires that CBJs be posted online, it doesn’t specify where. The result, until now, has been a fractured landscape.
In March, a survey conducted by Demand Progress found that 6.1 percent of all 456 executive branch agencies have either a fiscal 2018 or 2019 CBJ published online, but not both, as is the case for most other agencies. What’s more, Demand Progress argued at the time, finding the CBJs that are published online in all their myriad ways is just too difficult and time-consuming.
“We shouldn’t even have to go through this process,” Demand Progress policy director Daniel Schuman told FedScoop at the time.
There’s some evidence that Congress agrees with this sentiment — in 2018 and 2019, the legislative branch “encouraged” OMB to maintain “a central online repository where all Federal agency budgets and their respective justifications are publicly available in a consistent searchable, sortable, and machine-readable format.”
So Demand Progress was certainly happy to see the new USASpending.gov page. However, in a First Branch Forecast blog post, the group does bring up a few critiques. For one, because USASpending.gov has links and doesn’t host the documents directly, any change on the agency side could disrupt the availability of the information. The group also notes that there is no way to know if the list is complete and takes issue with the information being tucked away where few would know to look.
“The new USASpending site is a small step in the right direction, but so far it is insufficient for its purpose,” the blog post states. “USASpending should maintain a centralized website that lists all the agencies that are required to submit and publish CBJs, whether they have done so, republish the reports, and maintain historical reports for prior years. In addition, OMB’s budget website should link to the USASpending page.”