Who Cares About Federal Spending Anyway?

The U.S. Treasury Department is about to re-launch USAspending.gov—a database containing detailed accounts of all U.S. federal expenditures—with the aim of making the government budget more transparent and understandable.

As a team of Harvard students in a Kennedy School field class working with Treasury, our task was to discover the answer to a difficult question: who cares?

Federal spending data seems very important—so much so, that Congress passed the DATA Act, a law requiring that it be transparent and freely available online. Politicians and pundits all talk about federal spending, but our team is on a mission to discover who actually uses this dataset—and for what?

To answer this question, we started with the basics: interviewing and observing existing and potential users of federal spending data. For example, we spoke with these three individuals: 

  • Kaitlin, a product manager at a government-focused data startup looking to build a sophisticated dashboard that shows federal contracting opportunities
  • Mike, the CEO of a small media company that provides video services to government agencies
  • Peter, an advisor at a local Small Business Administration (SBA) branch who is focused on giving his clients the best business advice

Kaitlin, Mike and Peter came from diverse backgrounds and had very different data needs. To make our project effective for Treasury, we knew we had to focus—and fast. But where? We wrestled with this question as part of our user research process.

 Diverging in order to converge

To organize our research, we created five categories of users and developed hypotheses on how each could use federal spending data:

  • Government Vendors: companies that sell products or services to the federal government interested in learning about contracts
  • Information Providers: companies that provide aggregated business or government data insights to other companies looking to add new datasets to their sources
  • Researchers: academics, think tank staffers, and journalists looking to uncover trends, tell stories and advocate policy solutions
  • Congressional Staffers: Capitol Hill staffers interested in comparing how their constituency fares relative to others, or advocating for a budget priority
  • Grant Recipients: state and local government officials looking to better plan and compete for federal grants

As we spoke with dozens of users across these categories, Treasury had one main guiding principle for us: search for scenarios where USASpending.gov can create economic value. With this in mind, we were able focus and know what to listen for, even as we kept expanding the list of users we spoke with.

Key Insights

We’ve come away with three main insights from our user research process:

1. Understand the “hierarchy of needs” for your users: We learned that Government Vendors and Information Providers are the categories most likely to leverage spending data to spur economic activity. For them, information about government contracting is central to business. 

As Mike—the CEO of the media company—told us, a small firm like his does not have the resources to send staff to Washington, DC to lobby government agencies. Although he doesn’t use USAspending.gov today, Mike was excited to explore the new website and how it might inform his sales process. Kaitlin—the product manager—saw potential in linking spending data with other procurement information to enhance her product and help her startup grow.  

2. Refine and redefine your user segments as you learn more: The segments we researched had nuances and differences within them. In the Information Services category, for example, we had very different types of users.

Peter—the SBA advisor—uses federal spending data manually and occasionally:

“I go through four or five government websites to register small businesses before thinking about spending data. When I do get around it, I typically search the website by industry and show the results to my clients.” 

On the other hand, Kaitlin’s product management needs were quite different:

“We pull government data automatically, through an Application Programming Interface (API). To use the new spending information, we would need extremely up-to-date data and an identifier field to tie this dataset to others we are already using.”

3. A business is not a user, but it may have many users within it: We understood the importance of seeing a user as a specific person in a specific role. When we spoke to Sam, a director of business development in the startup where Kaitlin works, his perspective was very different. Rather than features and technical integration (Kaitlin’s focus), Sam was thinking about using spending data to price a contract. Despite working in the same company, his vantage point and data needs were completely different. 

We realized that good user research should focus on a consistent profile and allow us to compare several users with similar roles across organizations. 

Next steps

Our user research got us a preliminary answer to the question of “who cares?”. Now, we will focus on two additional questions: why do they care and how much.

We will continue talking with prospective and actual users of federal spending data—and are eager to turn our research into useful insights, prototypes, and recommendations to aid the U.S. Treasury. Stay tuned as we share more in our next post!

Will Long, Maya Perl, Anna Ponting, Cindy Yang, Ni Xu

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of our interviewees.