Budget could close the door on open government

April 17, 2011

Government transparency advocates warn that spending cuts in the federal budget passed last week could close the door on President Obama’s ambitious “open government” goals and hamper efforts to open up federal agencies to closer public scrutiny.

The budget deal slashes the Electronic Government Fund from a proposed $35 million to $8 million — not nearly enough to keep certain government Web sites operating at current levels, officials said.

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 2006 law sponsored by Obama when he was a senator.

Once he became president, Obama issued a series of orders instructing agencies to quickly review and approve Freedom of Information Act requests, make wider use of social media, begin posting more government information online and publish the White House visitor logs.

A report released Wednesday faults the White House for publishing 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 kept the event closed to the public.

Regarding the budget cuts, Vivek Kundra, the White House chief information officer, said last week at a Senate hearing, “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 said.

The Office of Management and Budget declined to comment further last week and wouldn’t say which Web sites might be shuttered 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 shortsighted and said that spending just a few million dollars to operate the sites could eventually save the government billions more.

The Sunlight Foundation warned 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?” it asked in an editorial memo.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said, “The databases aren’t perfect, but slashing their funding certainly won’t fix the problems.” In an e-mail, she said that transparency “is a place where spending can make the government work better.”

“We would hate to see the government backslide on such important initiatives,” she said.

Gary Bass, founder of OMB Watch, said USASpending.gov 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.

Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists and a longtime expert on reducing national security secrecy, said that potential is what’s being lost with the cuts.

“What makes these programs most interesting and important is not what they have already achieved but what they might become,” he said.

The sites, he added, “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.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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