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Federal Budget Cuts May Cloud Government Transparency Websites

Efforts to roll back the federal budget to 2008 levels may have the unintended consequence of gutting spending aimed at fostering government transparency.

Over the last few years, the federal government has spent $8.3 million on the public information clearinghouse, and another $13.3 million on the website,  which allows citizens to track public investments in everything from the Gulf oil spill cleanup to higher education grants.

How do we know how much those open-government platforms have cost? Because of another transparency initiative — the IT Dashboard — which specifically monitors the progress of the government's many information technology efforts.

Most of the money that supports these programs, however, could disappear in the current wrangling in Washington over federal budget cuts. And, in a particularly bitter irony, that means the public could lose access to a lot of valuable information about what government is up to — including transparent information on how much money we're spending on government transparency websites.

In February, the House passed a budget that would slice the Electronic Government Fund from $34 million to $2 million for the rest of the fiscal year.

"There's great concern that as they negotiate over how they're going to fund the government for the remainder of year, they're willing to use that as a starting point and eliminate virtually all of the money that would go toward the E-Gov fund," said Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation,  an open-government advocate in Washington.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Barack Obama came into office two years ago promising to create the most transparent government in U.S. history. To do that, the administration tapped the E-Gov fund, which was initially created in 2002 but was receiving only $2 million or $3 million a year. For fiscal year 2010, Congress increased that pot to $34 million.

"This is basically paying for all of Obama's transparency promises," Schuman said.

Those include cloud-computing initiatives, online tools that make it easier for citizens to engage with government, and inter-agency technology innovations that let federal workers collaborate on applications instead of each creating their own.

"All of these things, with the exception of one or two, will go away entirely because they're all funded by the E-Gov fund," Schuman said. "If that goes from $34 [million] to $2 million, there's no way to pay for basically all of these programs."

Non-IT geeks may wonder what's so expensive about uploading to the Internet data that should be publicly available anyway. That $34 million, Schuman said, doesn't even go toward the salaries of government employees who design and maintain the initiatives. The bulk of the costs, rather, go to contracted software development and web hosting (if you want to get even more specific you can — for now — go here and look for yourself).

In the bigger picture, $34 million also isn't that much money. On IT projects alone, the Department of Defense is slated to spend $38 billion this year, the Department of Justice $3.1 billion and the Department of Agriculture $2.6 billion. IT initiatives that specifically support government transparency websites, in other words, represent a fraction of 1 percent of all of the money the federal government spends on information technology.

If that funding dries up, first the data on these sites will become out-of-date, Schuman predicted. Then some of the programs will stop functioning. Ultimately, the sites that support them will come down all together.

The Obama administration's proposed budget would maintain the E-Gov funding at last year's $34 million level — but that budget is far from the one congressional leaders are now debating as they try to head off a government shutdown next week. It's unclear, Schuman said, if politicians who have gutted the E-Gov fund in their existing proposals are aware of what they're doing (House Republicans, for example, may simply be owning up to a campaign promise to return federal spending to 2008 levels, which happened to be before the current big open-government push).

This week, the Sunlight Foundation drafted an open letter to leaders on Capitol Hill urging them to restore the money, and they're asking others to sign on to the plea before it's sent across town.

After all, of all of the expenditures being fought over in Washington right now — funding for Planned Parenthood, the EPA, health care reform and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — open government is one initiative everyone likes.

"The federal government operates a multi-trillion dollar budget, and without these tools it is difficult if not impossible to figure out what's going on," Schuman said. "Without these tools, it's difficult if not impossible to get access to most of these kinds of government data. It's difficult if not impossible for employees to collaborate with one another in this kind of way. I do not know — I don't think anybody knows — whether the economic value created by these tools is greater than their cost. I tend to think that it is. But I do know that the transparency it creates is incredibly valuable."

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