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The Way Forward To Save The Data

by

In the last few weeks there’s been a whirlwind of news and speculation about what will happen to the federal government’s online transparency efforts. From the first rumble of budget trouble to a frantic search for information on when the sites would go dark, and an extended legislative give-and-take over funding levels, the storm has cleared enough to know what’s left standing.

Although the future of online transparency is uncertain, what we can know for sure is that our collective efforts averted a disaster. A few programs will survive, with the immediate fate of online transparency in the hands of federal CIO Vivek Kundra and a few key legislators.

Congress and the President collectively cut the Electronic Government Fund from $34m in FY2010 to $8m in FY2011. For much of this past year, the e-gov fund kept the lights on with the fumes from last year’s funding combined with a little under $2m from this year’s funding and some fancy financial footwork. Don’t be misled by these (relatively) small numbers: all agencies dramatically reduced their expenditures and held off on new projects while Congress worked out a budget, so the amount already spent represents starvation levels. The famine may continue. Even though Congress is supposed to pass a new budget for 2012 by October 1, which would make new monies available, it’s highly doubtful that this will take place on time. The $6m-or-so may have to last a long time.

There is a glimmer of hope, however. Because of our collective effort to #savethedata -- with nearly 10,000 signatures to our letter to Congress -- instead of these transparency programs going dark (except a very basic version of USASpending.gov) as would have happened at the originally-proposed $2m level, more programs will survive. In addition, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Issa has made a personal pledge to use his reprogramming authority (i.e., the ability to shift funds around) to try and keep many sites alive; congressional leaders such as Sen. Lieberman and Rep. Serrano also have stressed the importance of these programs.

Even so, Vivek Kundra, the federal CIO and e-gov administrator, will now have to make some very difficult decisions about which programs to kill or curtail. Two programs, USASpending.gov and Performance.gov, were created by federal law and will likely have some kind of funding priority.

It’s going to be very hard to squeeze $34m work of programs into less than $8m worth of funding of which 1/4 is already spent. From what I’ve heard, keeping many of these programs supported at basic levels (including maintenance) would cost around $15-20m.

In order to keep these programs going, there are 3 strategies that may be employed. First, Mr. Kundra and OMB will “pass the hat,” which means that they will ask other agencies to help support some of these programs. Given the funding cuts that most agencies have sustained, this will be a difficult ask. Second, other agencies may be asked to take charge of (and funding responsibility for) programs close to their missions. Third, money will be shifted around in an attempt to keep priority programs alive until (hopefully) more money can be found in next year's budget. In light of the visions recently offered by both President Obama and House Republicans, we must ensure that transparency is more than a bipartisan talking point.

If we continue to keep up the pressure, and if transparency leaders continue to emerge from both sides of the aisle, we have a fighting chance to truly open up the government to the American people. The last few weeks show that success is possible.

For more information on the programs at stake, here’s the six major areas covered by the e-gov fund and the amount of money intended to support a year of operations for each category. Please note that this is a partial program list, and the numbers may be a bit off, but it's drawn from the best information available to me.

1. Improving Innovation, Efficiency and Effectiveness, and Federal IT ($10m)

  • Cloud Computing -- supports government efforts to move to the cloud by addressing security, standards, and other issues
  • Apps.gov (part of cloud computing) -- helps the government use cloud computing and social media by negotiating gov’t friendly contracts and creating an agency-facing storefront
  • FedRamp (part of cloud computing) -- a unified government-wide risk management program that supports agency security services while reducing security burdens upon each individual agency
  • Data center consolidation
  • Mobile apps -- see http://apps.usa.gov/
  • Data.gov innovations platform
2. Citizens Engagement Platform (CEP) Access / Web 2.0 ($5m)
  • Apps.gov/now -- builds free agency-friendly engagement tools such as blogs, wikis, etc.
  • Citizen Services Delivery Dashboard (not yet public) -- will track agency performance against customer service standards
  • Challenge.gov -- puts all innovation prizes and challenges in one place
3. Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act Implementation ($9.5m)
  • USASpending.gov -- publishes federal spending on contracts and grants
  • Sub-award recipient reporting (part of USASpending.gov) -- shows the sub-recipients for contracts and grants
  • IT Dashboard -- reports on $80b in federal government IT funding and tracks performance
  • Performance.gov (not yet public) -- tracks how agencies are performing against key metrics
4. Efficient Federal Workforce ($5m)
  • Fedspace.gov -- a secure Intranet and collaboration workspace for federal employees across agencies
5. Accessible and Transparent Government Information / Data.gov ($3m)
  • Data.gov -- helps the public access to high-value, machine readable databases
6. E-Gov Project Management Best Practices ($1.5m)
  • 25 Point Plan to Reform Federal IT -- http://1.usa.gov/ezeKT8
  • PaymentAccuracy.gov -- tracks the accuracy of payments made by the U.S. government & identifies high-error programs