Open, Accountable Government
Key Transparency Fund Threatened Again in House Budget
by Gavin Baker, 7/15/2013
A key fund for government transparency programs is once again facing cuts. On July 10, the House Financial Services and General Government appropriations subcommittee approved a bill that provides no funding for the Electronic Government Fund (E-Gov Fund), the driving force behind many recent open government innovations. Instead, the bill merges the E-Gov Fund with another fund and cuts their combined funding level 15 percent from last year.
The E-Gov Fund has supported numerous flagship transparency programs, including USAspending.gov, Data.gov, Performance.gov, and the IT Dashboard. Without sufficient funding, however, upgrades to improve these tools, increase transparency, or improve data quality will have to be delayed or abandoned. The full House Appropriations Committee will consider the measure on July 17.
History of the E-Gov Fund
The E-Gov Fund was created by the E-Government Act of 2002 to support projects that "make Federal Government information and services more readily available to members of the public." The law placed the fund within the General Services Administration (GSA) and put a special emphasis on projects with "Government-wide application or implications." In addition, the law established particular criteria for projects, authorized funding levels, and required reporting on how the fund is used.
In fiscal year (FY) 2006, Congress authorized appropriations up to $150 million for the fund, but it never actually received amounts that large. Instead, the fund received $5 million or less each year until FY 2010. That year, the first full budget cycle under the Obama administration, President Obama requested a significant increase for the fund, resulting in a $34 million appropriation. The president's request had cited the need to invest in projects "to provide the public with more data and transparency."
With increased funding, the administration was able to develop useful upgrades to projects supported by the fund, such as USAspending.gov, which provides information about federal government spending; Data.gov, a catalog of open datasets from federal agencies; and the IT Dashboard, a transparency and management tool for overseeing federal IT projects.
The administration also launched several new sites with the funding boost, including Performance.gov, which provides information about agency performance measurements; PaymentAccuracy.gov, which shines a light on improper federal payments; and Challenge.gov, which provides a low-cost platform to help agencies bring the public in to identify more efficient solutions to problems facing the country.
Then the Cuts Began
Despite the fund's accomplishments, its funding level was quickly challenged. In February 2011, as part of a budget-cutting frenzy, the House passed a bill to slash the E-Gov Fund from $34 million to only $2 million. Media reports at the time indicated that agencies were making plans to shutter some of the websites supported by the fund. After outcry from open government advocates, the fund was partially restored and ultimately received an $8 million appropriation in FY 2011.
The fund was targeted again in FY 2012 when both the House and Senate appropriations committees approved bills providing no budget for the E-Gov Fund and instead merging its function into another line item. While the House approved a slight funding increase to the combined fund, the Senate committee trimmed the fund's level. However, transparency advocates and the Obama administration objected, noting that the new account would not be subject to the E-Government Act's authorization and reporting requirements. Congress later abandoned this approach and returned the E-Gov Fund to independence and a slight funding boost in FY 2012 compared to the previous year's cut, but still well short of FY 2010 levels.
FY 2013 was relatively uneventful for the E-Gov Fund, other than in suffering government-wide sequestration. But as the appropriations process begins for FY 2014, the House subcommittee has returned to the same bad ideas that Congress rejected in FY 2012. The Center for Effective Government has called for the full committee to adopt changes when it considers the bill.
Evolution of the Fund
The fund's projects have also changed over the years. The IT Dashboard, developed under the fund and launched in 2009, was transferred to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in FY 2012 when that office's Integrated, Efficient, and Effective Uses of Information Technology account was created. In April, it was reported that USAspending.gov would transfer to the Treasury Department as it establishes its planned spending transparency office (although GSA's budget documents state only that it is "considering the best placement" of the site).
This evolution lines up with the intent behind the E-Gov Fund: to enable government to develop innovations in a timely fashion to increase transparency and solve government-wide challenges. As projects mature, they may then become a regular part of an agency budget. The fund would remain ready to incubate new projects that deliver transparency and efficiency improvements. However, if the E-Gov Fund loses its independence and faces further cuts, its ability to achieve those important goals will be diminished.