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Budget Technopocalypse: Proposed Congressional Budgets Slash Funding for Data Transparency

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Data.gov, USASpending.gov, and other Obama tech innovations face virtual extinction if the FY 2011 budget bill passed by the House of Representatives in February or considered by the Senate in March becomes law. The funding source for these e-government initiatives is the Electronic Government Fund, a $34 million bucket of money that would be drained to $2 million for the remainder of this fiscal year. The House and Senate’s inability to agree on long-term budget legislation has kept these initiatives alive at FY 2010 levels.

Some projects facing defunding include the recently-launched cloud computing initiative, the information repository data.gov, the government-spending reporting site USASpending.gov, citizen engagement tools, and online collaboration tools. Altogether, six project areas apparently will be affected by the cuts. Vivek Kundra, the Federal CIO who is responsible for allocating the Electronic Government Fund, will have to make some very difficult choices.

Although the Electronic Government fund was never allocated the kinds of money envisioned by the authors of the E-Government Act of 2002, starting in FY 2010 the fund was beefed up to $34 million by the incoming Obama administration and Democratically-controlled Congress. Funding levels for the past decade hovered around $2-3 million.

The funding necessary to keep these programs in place is illuminated by the IT Dashboard, one of the spending-tracking initiatives under Vivek Kundra's leadership. According to the Dashboard, over the last few years data.gov has cost $8.3 million; the cloud computing initiative has cost $1.4 million; and USASpending.gov has cost $13.3 million -- the legislation creating USASpending.gov was co-sponsored by Senator Coburn and then-Senator Obama.

The returns from these e-government initiatives in terms of transparency are priceless. They will help the government operate more effectively and efficiently, thereby saving taxpayer money and aiding oversight. Although we have significant issues with some of these program’s data quality, and we are concerned that the government may be paying too much for the technology, there should be no doubt that we need the transparency they enable. For example, fully realized transparency would allow us to track every expense and truly understand how money -- like that in the electronic government fund -- flows to federal programs. Government spending and performance data must be available online, in real time, and in machine readable formats.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that either budget bill will be enacted into law in their current forms. But there is reason for alarm. Each house has considered providing only $2 million for the Electronic Government Fund, although the six continuing resolution have so far sustained current funding levels on a pro-rated basis. Looking ahead, the Administration called for $34 million in its budget request for FY 2012. The unsettled financial climate means that we can expect this funding fight to continue.

An open and accountable government is a prerequisite for democracy, and keeping these programs alive costs a mere pittance when compared to the value of bringing the federal government into the sunlight.