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Editorial Memo: Proposed Budget Cuts Will Wipe Out Data Transparency

April 1, 2011

Contact: Gabriela Schneider 202-742-1520

Some of the most important technology programs that keep Washington accountable are in danger of being eliminated. Data.gov, USASpending.gov, the IT Dashboard and other federal data transparency and government accountability programs are facing a massive budget cut — from $34 million to $2 million.[1] An intensely secretive budget process, in combination with Congress's budget cutting frenzy, has led to a situation where almost everyone is responsible for the cuts and no one is accountable. The provision to cut these programs started among House Republicans and was re-introduced by Senate Democrats.

Now the situation is even more dire. Recent news reports indicate that these sites will cease operations in the coming months unless their funding is saved.[2] Funding is set to run out beginning on April 20 for seven signature websites, including Data.gov, USASpending.gov and the IT Dashboard.

These transparency programs offer huge returns to government and citizens alike. Data transparency can help the government operate more effectively and efficiently, thereby saving taxpayer money and aiding oversight. They can help restore trust in government and provide accountability on its spending and operations. Specifically, USASpending.gov lets the public see for itself how the federal government spends money on grants and contracts, the IT Dashboard shows how much the government spends on information technology and Data.gov provides a clearinghouse of government data sets.

How are these sites useful? By using the Office of Management and Budget’s IT Dashboard, the Sunlight Foundation was able to identify how much the government spent building Data.gov and USASpending.gov. According to the IT Dashboard, Data.gov has cost $8.3 million and USASpending.gov has cost $13.3 million over the last few years. In fact, Vivek Kundra, Chief Information Officer for the U.S., recently said the IT Dashboard helped the administration cut over $3 billion in IT spending.[3]

Similarly, USASpending.gov has been used by journalists to ascertain how much the government spent on government contracts, such as ProPublica’s reporting on BP’s contracts with the U.S. after last year’s Gulf Coast oil spill.[4] Likewise, Sunlight’s own “Clearspending” report used USASpending.gov data to bring to light nearly $1.3 trillion in inaccurate federal spending data. This report led to a congressional hearing on this topic just a few weeks ago by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.[5]

Support for these government transparency initiatives spans the political spectrum. The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA), the bill that created USASpending.gov, was heralded by Democrats and Republicans alike. “An informed public is a better public,” said Senator Coburn in 2006, who introduced the bill along with then-Senator Obama. “This Web site is going to put control of our government back in control of our citizens.”[6]

There is no other current funding mechanism for these initiatives, which means if the budget cuts are indeed enacted, we can expect these beacons of online transparency to go stale or disappear altogether. Simply put, it may become impossible to implement the President’s landmark commitment to opening the government. At a time when federal spending is being scrutinized, shouldn’t we keep every tool available to measure how our tax dollars flow toward government expenditures?

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.

We cannot afford to let Washington’s transparency efforts go dark.

Resources:

1. The funding source for these e-government initiatives is the Electronic Government Fund. For more information on that fund, please see this Congressional Research Service report: http://opencrs.com/document/RL34492/
2. http://www.federalnewsradio.com/?nid=35&sid=2327798
3. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/03/17/sunshine-savings-and-service
4. http://www.propublica.org/article/epa-officials-weighing-sanctions-against-bps-us-operations
5. Testimony available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/50399085/Written-Testimony-of-Ellen-Miller-before-the-Committee-on-House-Oversight-and-Government-Reform
6. http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/1207/121407n1.htm

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-partisan non-profit that uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable. Visit SunlightFoundation.com to learn more about Sunlight’s projects, including InfluenceExplorer.com and Party Time.