The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates greater government openness and transparency, has released its 2011 Clearspending report assessing accuracy in US federal government expenditure reporting. The grade the government got was a resounding F. 

The government gives a picture of its spending by reconciling the Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA)—its tally of authorized and appropriated financial outflow through grants, contracts, or loans—with a report compiled and available on USASpending.gov, its web-based account of monies received and disbursed. Clearspending matched the two and reports on discrepancies along the following lines:

Over reporting: The amount reported in USASpending.gov that is not reported in the CFDA
Under reporting: The amount reported in the CFDA that is not reported in USASpending.gov
Non-reporting: The total value of all programs that are completely missing from USASpending.gov
Late: The total obligations that were reported late
Incomplete: The total obligations that were reported incompletely

The latest Clearspending report found that $1.3 trillion in federal spending was misreported—inaccuracies that accounted for a whopping 94.5 percent of the total grant spending reported by the government last year. In every day terms, that is like being unable to account for $56,700 of a $60,000 annual salary. 

A quick examination of the Clearspending data is instructive. The Department of Agriculture, for example, found $1,371,939,187 over reported, $59,426,769,261 under reported,  $19,644,548,304 not reported, $7,426,501,727 late in being reported, and $4,750,969,450 filed incompletely or missing key information. Simply put, that is more than $92 billion—specifically $92,620,727,929—that was reported incorrectly or not properly accounted for. Taken as a whole, the Clearspending report demonstrates that the government cannot fully account for how it spent about $1.3 trillion in 2010— an interesting number given that -$1.5 trillion is the amount Congress’ budgetary super committee is supposed to find in deficit cuts by the end of the year.

Among the reasons Sunlight gives for this abysmal performance is a lack of sanctions against agencies that do not report accurately. While Sunlight gives accolades and prominence to those programs and agencies that did report properly, the overall impression is one of either severe incompetence or sad indifference to financial accountability to taxpayers.

As with several other rating systems reflecting citizen, consumer, or donor concerns, the Sunlight Clearspending report has its flaws. Aiming to provide citizens with “accurate spending information when they need it,” the site mentions technologists, policy wonks, open government advocates, and ordinary citizens as its intended users. But the sheer size of the numbers involved is virtually guaranteed to boggle the minds and glaze the eyes of all but the most committed advocates and wonks: Like trying to imagine cosmic distances measured in trillions of miles, most people cannot make useful sense of nine-figure numbers. In addition, Sunlight’s repeated use of the word accountability threatens to muddy the waters at a time when the nonprofit sector itself is grappling with the precise meaning and implications of that term. Sunlight is not suggesting, for example, that the unaccounted for dollars in the Clearspending report were stolen. Finally, even if every penny of federal spending were properly accounted for, there is no guarantee that the money was well spent, that no $10,000 hammers were purchased, or that the grants had any positive impact: Even a 100 percent score on the Clearspending report cannot be interpreted as a measure of performance or effectiveness.

Still, the report does give taxpayers a decent, and troubling, view of a system that does not function well. It is worth perusing. And it is a good indicator that a major storm about government spending is brewing just over the horizon.

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