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 amount of money available for flagship transparency programs and how they will be funded is again the subject of controversy, with the White House rightly opposing Senate plans to cut funding and merge the initiatives with unrelated programs. The Statement of Administration Policy was issued last Thursday in response to appropriations bill HR 2354, the likely legislative vehicle through which the Senate will consider funding for Data.gov, USASpending.gov, the IT Dashboard, and other important transparency programs.
Thus far in the Senate, only the Senate Appropriations Committee has voted on funding levels for the E-Gov Fund, which provides funding for these transparency programs, and it did so in a process that was essentially closed to all other members of the Senate and to the public.
The Committee voted to combine the E-Gov Fund with the Federal Citizen Services Fund despite the funds having different purposes and raising questions about whether the combined fund would still be subject to the Electronic Government Act of 2002.
It also voted to deal the E-Gov Fund yet another funding hit. For both FY 2009 and FY 2010, the E-Gov fund was appropriated $34 million. Congressional wrangling for FY 2011 reduced E-Gov to $8 million, but with the promise that much of the funding would be restored. For FY 2012, the House Appropriations Committee came through with a partial restoration, recommending overall E-Gov funding levels be set at approximately $16 million. Senate Appropriators, however, cut the E-Gov fund even further, down to a little more than $7 million. Some programs already have been terminated, with many more on life support.
In response, today the Sunlight Foundation and OMB Watch released a letter to Senators calling on Congress to fully support the E-Gov Fund at $34 million, and to keep its money separate from the Federal Citizen Services Fund. The letter is below. More Sunlight reporting on our efforts to #savethedata is available here.
Take a few moments and call your Senator.
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|
After working several depressing retail jobs in my teenage years, I used to think that it was a kind of job I would never wish upon anyone. After reviewing the open government plans of 29 federal agencies, I'm starting to take a second look at the lessons I learned at those jobs.
For example, it gave me a deep appreciation for the need to conduct occasional inventories of the store: a listing of every single piece of merchandise under the store's roof. In my assessment, the majority of the open government plans failed to provide clear inventories of the "high-value" (a problematic term, as we've discussed before) data.
Most plans gave a general narrative of the type of data that was out there without actually creating an invoice of said data, hyperlinks, citations or even a spreadsheet - in other words, no inventory!
Given the importance of inventories in retail, it shouldn't be a surprise that the Department of Commerce (DOC) provided one of the best data inventories. A screenshot of the inventory including a link back to their open government plan can be found at right.
To give credit where it's due, the General Services Administration (GSA) also had a pretty solid inventory [PDF] (page 55). It's not surprising since the GSA is responsible for acquisition solutions of supplies for many government organizations.
Last week, we devoted a fair amount of digital ink to highlighting the shortcomings of the data in open government plans so I wanted to make sure we continue showcasing the awesomeness of certain aspects of particular agencies' plans. The kudos to the DOC doesn't stop with their data inventory. Clear organization and concise writing typified the DOC’s “What Commerce Will Do” section. It also helps that the plan is written in plain English.
I urge you to read that section in its entirety [PDF] - it starts on page 4. The real star of this section is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration otherwise (NOAA). Factoring out my automatic positive association with the name the new NOAA data being released is absolutely great.
Whether it's digitizing weather station data from the 18th and 19th centuries or making public for the first time soil moisture observation data, the new data from NOAA will improve climate studies and help business make better economic decisions. NOAA was already putting huge amounts of data online, even before the Open Government Directive. Recognizing that the data is sometimes hard to find, NOAA is also expanding the scope and functionality of its Climate Services Portal to help citizens and scientists find the data they need.
The Sunlight Foundation has been focusing its eye on the transparency plank of the open government plants, specifically on data transparency. We'll continue to do so this week but it's important to note that transparency is only one of three Open Government Directive planks: the others are participation and collaboration. Agencies were also asked to come up with an open government flagship initiative. Heather West of the Center for Democracy and Technology has a great post on Govfresh highlighting certain flagship initiatives.
We'll continue to dig deeper into the transparency portion of the open government plans and link to other evaluations going up round the net. If you see a perspective on the plans we've missed drop it in the comments below!Photo credit: "Discoveryland Retail Packaging" by Flickr user Design Packaging.
If you've ever tried to research federal contracts you'll find that the databases used to house those contracts online are not so great. Sen. Claire McCaskill held a hearing yesterday titled, "Improving Transparency and Accessibility of Federal Contracting Databases." Nancy Scola wrote up the hearing and it isn't pretty:
All told, there are a million lines of code involved. But there's really no all told here, because the databases don't talk to one another. For example, FPDS, the Federal Procurement Data System doesn't communicate with EPLS, which stands for Excluded Parties List. Which means that theUSASpending.gov website -- heralded as the American public's window into the inner-workings of government, but powered by FPDS -- doesn't even know that contractors contained within it have been banished from government service for defrauding the United States government or otherwise behaving badly. What's more, on some of these legacy systems, a search for Contractor X, Inc. won't return results for Contractor X Inc. The shorthand for that particular wrinkle came to be known, during the hearing, as "the comma problem." In fact, GAO's William Woods explained to the senators, the poor state of those databases meant that when his agency was asked by Congress to detail how many contractors were billing the United States government for work in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government watchdog group was forced by technology to admit its ignorance. "We could not answer those questions," said Woods. How many KBRs are at work in American war zones, being paid with taxpayer dollars? How many Blackwaters? Dunno.
The biggest problem, however, didn't turn out to be the current state of disrepair, but rather the inability to figure out what to do with the whole disclosure regime. To the surprise of almost everyone in the committee room, the General Services Administration (GSA) has been working to create a more sensible contractor disclosure regime with a more accessible public face. It was difficult for federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra to identify who exactly would be overseeing the -- yes -- contract to revamp the databases. Ultimately that responsibility came down to either the GSA, the Office of Management and Budget or the Office of Federal Procurement.
As Scola writes, "Senator Robert Bennett spoke for many of us today when he sat up on the dais in room 342 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building and rubbed his temples over, and over, and over, and over again."
First, she's the Chair of the Contracting Subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Gov't Affairs Committee, and they've just annoucned a hearing on a new unified database structure for government spending. The below press release has more detail, but the short story is that the way this database is created will have enormous impact on how spending accountability functions online.
Second, she is asking the Open Government community for questions she should be asking. Here's where they're asking for questions:
That means there are at least two reasons to participate. One: online spending transparency needs to be built well. Two: other committee chairs should engage in similar behavior. This community can significantly affect both the database and the participatory processes, by participating.
(start press release)
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Maria Speiser 202-228-6263
September 15, 2009 Adrianne Marsh 202-228-6253
CONTRACTING OVERSIGHT SUBCOMMITTEE TO EXAMINE HOW THE GOVERNMENT TRACKS CONTRACTS
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, chaired by Chairman Claire McCaskill, will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, September 29 to examine the way the federal government tracks information relating to federal contracts. The Subcommittee will assess the problems of the decentralized and cumbersome systems presently in place, and discuss current plans to develop a new platform for integrating these systems to ensure that goals of efficiency, transparency, and accessibility are met.
Currently, the federal government retains contract information in multiple outdated and inefficient databases maintained by various government agencies. The federal government has begun efforts to streamline and improve the system by planning to create the Integrated Acquisition Environment, and the General Services Administration (GSA) is planning to move forward with awarding the Architecture Operations Contract Support (AOCS) contract to develop a new platform for integrating information relating to government contracting. GSA is expected to award the contract by the end of the month. The Subcommittee will hear testimony from both stakeholders and government officials.
Who: Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight
What: Public Hearing on Improving Transparency and Accessibility of Federal Contracting Databases
When: Tuesday, September 29 2009, at 10:00 a.m. ET
Where: Dirksen Senate Office Building Room SD-342
Witnesses: Panel I
William T. Woods
Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management
U.S. Government Accountability Office
Director of Federal Fiscal Policy
A.R. Trey Hodgkins, III
Vice President for National Security & Procurement Policy
Federal Chief Information Officer &
Administrator, Office of E-Government and Information Technology
Office of Management and Budget
The GSA just published the Spring 2009 edition of their Intergovernmental Solutions Newsletter, featuring a diverse offering of transparency related essays from within and outside government. My essay, "Transparency in Government Begins Outside" starts on page 29.
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.