The Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 mandates that reports such as this one be made publicly available online. Specifically, an amendment offered by then-Representative Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) requires IGs to post copies of audit reports to their websites within one day of their release. The Senate considered a similar bill before eventually passing the House version. The Sunlight Foundation supported that bill and praised a provision similar to the Gillibrand amendment. The Washington Post article states that Miller credits Susan Brita, a GSA deputy administrator, for blowing the whistle on the wasteful spending. Without her tip, the IG report and subsequent Post article might not have been possible. Internal whistleblowers often play critical roles in identifying and eliminating government waste, but many would-be whistleblowers stay quiet in fear of the retaliation they may face for their actions. Last summer, the Advisory Committee on Transparency held an event focused on encouraging and protecting federal whistleblowers. More recently, a Senate committee moved to strengthen whistleblower protections. It is also worth noting that the GSA is far from the only government agency to experience spending irregularities. The Sunlight Foundation tracks discrepancies in funding information between USAspending.gov and the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, and the results are sometimes shocking. For example, in 2010, we found $1,306,120,795,761 of funding discrepancies. ----- "The News Without Transparency" shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we've redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you'd like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.
- A total conference cost of $823,000.
- "$130,000 in travel expenses for six scouting trips"
- "$5,600 for three semi-private catered in-room parties" including a "$2,000 party in [Public Buildings Service chief] Peck's loft suite"
- A "$31,208... 'networking' reception [that] featured a $19-per-person artisanal cheese display and $7,000 of sushi."
- "$44 per person daily breakfasts"
- "$75,000 for a 'team-building' exercise — the goal was to build a bicycle"
- "$146,000 on catered food and drinks"
- "$6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes to reward all participants for their work on stimulus projects"
- "employees received “yearbooks” with their pictures, at a cost of $8,130"
Last spring the government technology newspaper Federal Computer Week highlighted the Health and Human Services Department for spending $1.6 billion on advisory committees over the last decade, which is half of the $3.2 billion total the federal government spent on these committees during the same time period.
These numbers were obtained using the General Services Administration's new eFACA website. The website was developed "to make information from the Federal Advisory Committee Act database easier to find, understand, and use," according to the main page. This sort of information has been collected by GSA since 1972, but until recently had been hosted in a notoriously hard-to-use database.
These advisory committees have come under fire for a lack of transparency in other areas as well as spending, such as influence and access. President Obama attempted to address some concerns in June 2010 with a Presidential Memo prohibiting federally registered lobbyists from serving on these committees.
Earlier this fall the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed legislation seeking to make these committees more accountable. The legislation then moved to the Ways and Means Committee but has not made any progress since then. GSA's eFACA website and a study being conducted by the Administrative Conference of the United States on FACA are two steps forward for increasing transparency in this regard, according to the Project for Government Oversight.
The FCW article goes on to list the agencies that have spent the most on advisory committees over the last decade. HHS tops the list, followed by the following:
- The Defense Department at $255 million.
- The Environmental Protection Agency at $137 million.
- The Interior Department at $88 million.
- The Energy Department at $74 million.
- The Veterans Affairs Department at $68 million.
The Government Accountability Office concluded that major projects funded through the E-Gov Fund "could potentially lead to benefits including cost savings and efficiency, customer service transparency, and governmentwide collaboration and information sharing." The report [PDF], released last Friday, focused on four of the sixteen projects supported by E-Gov in FY 2010, two of which were subsequently eliminated because of budget cuts in FY 2011. The E-Gov Fund supports projects that expand the government's abilities to carry out its activities electronically.
The report generally recommended that some programs incorporate additional performance metrics, a recommendation that GSA, which administers the E-Gov Fund, endorsed. It also noted that the two eliminated programs, the Citizen Services Dashboard and FedSpace, had respectively taken "significant steps" and made "progress" towards meeting their goals; the Dashboard had a pilot up and running with four agencies and FedSpace had released a beta version that had 500 users. A list of programs funded by E-Gov is available below (as identified in the report). Funding declined precipitously from $34 million in FY 2009 and 2010 to $8 million in 2011, resulting in the termination of these programs and the suspension of development in many others.
While this funding cut was widely considered to be short-term, recent developments suggest the cuts may persist, freezing programs at current levels and preventing any improvements or new initiatives. While the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee endorsed restoring funding up to $15.8 million earlier this year, the Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved a further cut to $7.4 million. In addition, the E-Gov Fund was combined with another fund, raising the risk that its unique role in fostering a specific type of governmentwide technological innovation could evaporate.
In the following video, David McClure, the GSA Citizens Services Associate Administrator, briefly discussed the cuts to E-Gov when he testified before the House on September 21, 2011. He notes that "when anyone gets less money than requested, something's got to give."
Amount (in millions)
|FedRAMP (Security for Cloud Computing)||1.91|
|E-mail as a Service||0.50|
|SAJACC (Standards Acceleration to Jumpstart the Adoption of Cloud Computing)||1.00|
|Data center inventory and consolidation planning||0.88|
|Payment Information Repository Proof of Concept||1.35|
|Invoicing Standards Pilot||0.15|
|Data.gov (innovative functionality)||2.50|
|Citizen Engagement Platform||1.51|
|Citizen Challenge Platform||1.00|
|Citizen Services Dashboard||5.00|
|USASpending.gov and dashboards||9.50|
|Data.gov (basic functionality)||3.00|
|Project Management Best Practices||1.50|
Here’s an exciting development! Last week, I blogged about an encouraging report by Doug Belzer at Federal Computer Week, where he wrote about how Twitter, blogs and other Web 2.0 tools are revolutionizing government business. The General Services Administration had determined that Twitter’s standard terms of service is compatible with federal use.
Two days ago, Doug has another exciting article, this time in Government Computer News, about GSA announcing that it has signed agreements with Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo and blip.tv that will allow federal agencies to use new-media tools. Agencies can now begin using these tools to better communicate, network and share information via the Web.
Chris Snyder at Wired's Epicenter blog termed the move, "Web 2.0, meet dot-gov. Dot-gov, this is Web 2.0." He's right in calling it a "big step" for agencies attempting to become more transparent and interactive with citizens. "Now that the bureaucratic brush has been cleared, government agencies will be free, for example, to embed videos and create photo widgets that citizens can embed into their MySpace or Facebook pages," he writes. An example of a government agency already using Web 2.0 tools successfully is the Centers for Disease Control alerting the public about the recent peanut better product recall.
Chris quotes Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and Sunlight's senior technology advisor, as saying it's another example of why it really matters who’s president of the United States. "Because we have the country's first tech president, the speed at which the government can catch up with the private sector and use of technology is exponential."
Each individual agency will determine their own guidelines for how their employees can use the tools. “The new agreements make it easier for the government to provide official information to citizens via their method of choice,” according to GSA’s administrator, who is in discussions with other new-media providers. They started with these four because of their popularity and large number of users.
We're excited about this development. You should be too.
On his second day in office, President Barack Obama issued a sweeping memorandum on transparency in government, setting out an ambitious to-do list for the newly created position of Chief Technology Officer (CTO). This person was to be responsible initially -- along with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Administrator of General Services Administration -- to come up with a concrete list of recommendations to implement the principles set out in the memorandum, namely, that government should be transparent, participatory, and collaborative, and to do it within 120 days.
We're now at day 21 and counting , and the Obama Administration has yet to appoint that CTO -- a position he promised to create during his campaign.
So I'm worried: the clock is ticking to prepare that critically important memo. And besides the ticking clock there have been several examples of the White House falling down on its promises to be transparent, particularly complying with its promise to post all legislation online for 5 days before consideration. (The history of posting bills online to allow for public comment has been either non-existent or spotty to date.) Getting that CTO "online" seems more and more important every day. To walk the walk, Obama needs the CTO.
So what's going on? Inquiring minds want to know.