The Washington Post

Budget could close the door on open government

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, 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, 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 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 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 covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
Republicans debated Saturday night. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Dan Balz says...
Rarely has the division between Trump and party elites been more apparent. Trump trashed one of the most revered families in Republican politics and made a bet that standing his ground is better than backing down. Drawing boos from the audience, Trump did not flinch. But whether he will be punished or rewarded by voters was the unanswerable question.
GOP candidates react to Justice Scalia's death
I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish.
Sen. Marco Rubio, attacking Sen. Ted Cruz in Saturday night's very heated GOP debate in South Carolina. Soon after, Cruz went on a tirade in Spanish.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
The State's Andy Shain says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
67% 22%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

March 6: Democratic debate

on CNN, in Flint, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.