Transparency advocates warn that the 2011 federal budget set for approval today by Congress could close the door on President Obama’s ambitious government transparency goals, ending one of his earliest moves as president to open up federal agencies to closer public scrutiny.
The budget deal struck late last week slashes the Electronic Government Fund from a proposed $35 million down to $8 million — not nearly enough to keep certain government Web sites operating at current levels. The cuts could spell the end of Data.gov — a compilation of hundreds of thousands of government data sets, the IT Dashboard, an ambitious project to track how much the federal government spends on information technology investments, and USASpending.gov, which tracks federal contract spending and was established by a law sponsored by then-Sen. Obama in 2006.
Once he became president, Obama issued a series of orders instructing agencies to quickly review and approve Freedom of Information requests, make wider use of social media, begin posting more government information online, and ordering the publication of the White House visitor logs.
A report published Wednesday faults the White House for releasing incomplete visitor logs, but outside observers generally agree that the Obama administration is doing more than its predecessors on transparency issues. Those same observers recently awarded Obama an honor for his open government work, but the White House oddly kept the event closed to the public.
Regarding the budget cuts, Vivek Kundra, the White House Chief Information Officer, said Tuesday at a Senate hearing that “We’re still evaluating the implications, but we are going to have to make some tough decisions around which systems are going to have to go off-line versus what can be supported with $8 million in funds.”
“We haven’t had a chance to sit down and prioritize systems,” Kundra added.
The Office of Management and Budget declined to comment further Wednesday and wouldn’t say which Web sites might shutter or how many jobs or government contracts could be affected.
Only USASpending.gov is required to operate by law — the other two sites were established by Obama through executive actions and are not guaranteed federal funding.
Transparency advocates called the cuts short-sighted and said that spending just a few million dollars to operate the sites could eventually save the government billions more.
The Sunlight Foundation warned its members that the cuts would make it “impossible to implement the president’s landmark commitment to opening the government. At a time when federal spending is being scrutinized, shouldn’t we keep every tool available to measure how our tax dollars flow toward government expenditures?”
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said, “The databases aren’t perfect, but slashing their funding certainly wont fix the problems.” In an e-mail she said transparency “is a place where spending can make the government work better. We would hate to see the government backslide on such important initiatives.”
Gary Bass, founder of OMB Watch, called USASpending has been “incredibly important to helping restore trust in government again” by “opening a window” on government spending. It isn’t a perfect site, he said, but spending cuts won’t help it improve.
“What makes these programs most interesting and important is not what they have already achieved but what they might become,” said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists and a longtime expert on reducing national security secrecy. The sites “are all flawed, and they all need refinement and improvement, but that’s to be expected. With proper support and encouragement, they could foster a constructive new mode of interaction between government and the public.”
Even if the funding dries up, Aftergood said the sites are “an experiment, and I think the Obama Administration deserves a lot of credit for the attempt.”
Did you ever use these Web sites? Was it worth it? Should the government find ways to keep them going? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.