The Transparency-Killing Budget
Progress toward increased government transparency will stall, and in some cases reverse, according to new details about the damage stemming from recent federal budget cuts. Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra explained the cuts' impact on key transparency and technology projects in a May 24 letter to Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE).
Under the fiscal year (FY) 2011 budget, critical transparency websites such as USAspending.gov and Data.gov will survive but will forego needed upgrades. Other projects will see reductions or will be terminated. However, many in the open government community will lobby Congress to reverse the cuts in its budget for FY 2012, which begins on Oct. 1.
The Electronic Government Fund, or E-Gov Fund, is a line item in the General Services Administration (GSA) budget that supports government-wide technology projects. The fund was created by the E-Government Act of 2002 to coordinate both internal agency systems and public-facing services. Among the prominent products of the E-Gov Fund are:
- USAspending.gov, launched in 2007, implements the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 by providing a public searchable database of federal contract and assistance spending information
- The IT Dashboard, launched in 2009, provides public data on the cost and performance of federal IT projects and was used to identify and eliminate $3 billion in poorly-performing projects in 2010
- Data.gov, launched in 2009, provides a public catalog of machine-readable datasets from across the federal government
- Performance.gov, expected to launch later in 2011, will implement the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 by providing information on agency plans and performance
However, in its initial spending bill for FY 2011, the House slashed the fund by 94 percent, from $34 million in the prior year to $2 million, amidst other widespread budget cuts. Transparency advocates sounded the alarm, and administration officials confirmed that key websites would likely shut down in the aftermath of such dire cuts.
After the Senate rejected the bill, the House offered another proposal, providing $17 million for the fund – still a steep 50 percent cut but far less drastic. The Senate also rejected that bill. However, in a third bill, H.R. 1473, which the House and Senate agreed to on April 14 and President Obama signed into law the next day, the cut deepened again to provide only $8 million for the E-Gov Fund, a 76.5 percent cut.
On April 21, Carper sent a letter to Kundra asking for information on how the cuts would affect the E-Gov Fund's projects.
Impact of the Cuts
"Several [E-Gov Fund] projects will experience a sharp decline given the limited amount of funding," Kundra wrote in his response to Carper. "No project will go unaffected."
According to Kundra, the administration will maintain USAspending.gov, the IT Dashboard, Data.gov, and Performance.gov "at their current levels of operation." However, "there will be no enhancements or other development to address needs for improvement." Efforts to improve the systems' operations, address data quality problems, support users, and expand the information available will be postponed or abandoned.
The exact status of Performance.gov remains unclear. At a congressional hearing on May 10, federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients said Performance.gov would launch to the public "within the next few weeks." However, an administration official declined to specify a launch date for a May 27 Nextgov article. The official noted the administration's ability to meet the GPRA Modernization Act's deadlines would depend on future funding levels.
Kundra's letter also specifies two projects that will be terminated due to the funding cuts. The Citizen Services Dashboard was a project to make available to the public data on government agencies' customer service performance, such as timeliness, accuracy, and customer satisfaction. The Citizen Services Dashboard's relationship to President Obama's April 27 executive order on customer service is unclear. The administration will also cancel FedSpace, an internal collaboration website for federal employees.
Hope for FY 2012
Many of the feared cuts and delays could be avoided if Congress restores the funding for the upcoming fiscal year. The E-Gov Fund projects have drawn strong support from both parties, as well as nearly 10,000 individuals and a coalition of transparency advocates, including OMB Watch.
The House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which sets GSA's budget, is scheduled to mark up its bill on June 16. The subcommittee has not yet released its proposal for the E-Gov Fund. However, the full Appropriations Committee has asked the subcommittee to cut a total of $2.1 billion, or 9.4 percent, from the agencies under its jurisdiction, which also includes the Treasury Department, the White House, and a number of independent agencies and commissions.
Several financial services agencies had been expected to see budgetary increases to implement the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. If those increases occur, they would put greater pressure on other agencies under the subcommittee's jurisdiction to accept cuts to meet the target amount of net decreases.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet announced allocations for its analogous subcommittee.