Connecting state and local government leaders
Tracking pandemic funds required the use of multiple federal, state and local data systems, a group appointed by Congress found. Ultimately, it had to contact state and local entities directly to gain a better understanding and fill data gaps.
Even government watchdogs run into data gaps when they try to track pandemic spending, according to a new report by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and 10 inspectors general offices.
“You may want to know how much pandemic relief money your community received from the federal government,” the PRAC website reads. “But getting the answers can be difficult because of the quality and availability of federal spending data.”
The PRAC—a group of inspectors general set up by Congress to coordinate and support oversight of pandemic relief—picked six random communities across the country to try to find out how much pandemic spending they received from the over $5 trillion doled out through grants, loans, contracts, direct assistance and other forms. Future reporting will focus on how the six communities used the funding.
Over 40 federal agencies and hundreds of programs were responsible for dispersing pandemic relief spending, the report states, but the watchdogs zeroed in on funding given by 10 agencies specifically. The group found a topline of about $2.65 billion in pandemic relief funding went to these six communities via 89 programs and subprograms in those agencies from March 2020 to September 2021.
But getting that information was no easy task: “Tracking pandemic funds to the community level required the use of multiple federal, state and local data systems, and ultimately we had to contact state and local entities directly to gain a better understanding and fill data gaps,” the report said.
Data collection and system shortcomings and differences in data formats occurred across federal, state and local levels of government.
“Sometimes data was either unreliable or unavailable. In other cases, we had to use data sources that the public can’t access,” the website said. “One partner had to access five federal non-public databases to determine the recipients in a single program.”
For example, the primary source of federal government spending data, USAspending.gov, “does not definitively track COVID-19 supplemental spending at the subrecipient level,” the PRAC previously reported.
The newest report notes that “attempts to only use USAspending.gov would not enable full identification of pandemic funding due to differences among USAspending.gov and other non-public data sources not accounted for on the publicly available USAspending.gov website.”
The group is “continuing to explore” how these differences affect the quality of data on the site, it says, and for now, advises that “continuing to disclose data limitations in USAspending.gov or pursuing other efforts around data reporting can help increase transparency of federal spending for the public.”
The latest report didn’t come with new recommendations, but it did point to previously made recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget about federal spending data gaps, including creating a feasibility study on how to better track subrecipient funding and engaging with lawmakers to consider “extending independent oversight of USAspending.gov data submissions.”
“While it may not be practical for every federal spending dollar to be integrated into USAspending.gov, opportunities exist to increase federal spending data transparency, a shared interest for all stakeholders, especially when the federal government administers large emergency spending programs to address nationwide challenges and respond to new disasters,” the report said.
For now, “we believe these challenges limit the degree of transparency into the use of pandemic relief funds,” the report said.
“If the PRAC Oversight Team—comprised of auditing and data experts from across the accountability community—had such difficulty tracking the funds, then the general public and even members of Congress will likely also experience challenges in understanding how much of taxpayer funds were provided to communities,” the report concluded.