The Treasury Department has returned a keyword search to the transparency website USAspending.gov after a group of bipartisan senators sent a letter expressing concern about the website’s redesign, which made it more difficult for the public to see how taxpayer dollars are spent.
The website redesign last month sparked outcry among watchdog groups for making once readily available spending data nearly impossible to find.
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A letter sent by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) on May 7 to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew questioned why USAspending.gov was changed, finding that the redesign "reduced the site’s search functionality, and thus diminished its usefulness in promoting transparency in government."
A keyword search was added to the website on Monday.
The Treasury Department had defended the redesign as an improvement, saying the changes were "consistent with the Administration’s efforts to increase transparency."
However, a bipartisan group of senators pointed to problems with the advanced search, which prohibited users from searching by keyword, by product or service code, by parent company, for multiple years of data across more than one spending type, or the ability to sort results by date or amount. The changes made it impossible for users to see agency spending day to day,
"These search functions worked well in the previous version of the website," the letter said, which was signed by Chairman of HSGAC Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) and Ranking Member Thomas Carper (D., Del.); Chairman of the Armed Services Committee John McCain (R., Ariz.); Chairman of the Finance Committee Orrin Hatch (R., Utah); Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa); and Sens. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), Cory Booker (D., N.J.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), and Gary Peters (D., Mich.).
"It is unclear why they were removed, thus making it more difficult for Congress and the public to identify and analyze specific grants and contracts," they said. "As a publicly accessible website designed precisely to promote transparency, USAspending.gov should increase its configurability and flexibility over time—not reduce them."
The letter also asked the Treasury Department, whose Bureau of the Fiscal Service took over the management of the website from the Office of Management and Budget in January, if the agency contracted with an outside vendor, at what cost, and if consumer input was solicited for the redesign.
"What was the basis for the decision to alter the website’s public search capabilities?" the senators asked.
The Treasury Department said it would continue to work on the website after the redesign last month, and that "we expect further improvements to the underlying quality of the data."
The Bureau of Fiscal Service did not immediately return request for comment.
The website was mandated by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 in order to "make more data and information available to the public," and it launched in 2007. By law, USAspending.gov must be a "single searchable website, accessible by the public for free."
USAspending.gov also had to disclose for every award of federal spending: "The name of the entity receiving the award; the amount of the award; information on the award including transaction type, funding agency, etc.; the location of the entity receiving the award; and a unique identifier of the entity receiving the award."
It is unclear whether the sort function, allowing users to see federal spending in real time, will be restored.
UPDATE 2:10 P.M.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the keyword search function was restored to USAspending.gov on Thursday, May 14. It was restored on Monday, May 11. We regret the error.