Groups pushing for more government transparency agree with the Obama administration’s recent self-assessment that progress is being made —but budget-cutting efforts on Capitol Hill could threaten both recent gains and the prospect of future progress.
President Obama has made increasing government transparency a priority for his administration, ordering federal agencies to approve more Freedom of Information Act requests, to declassify information when possible and to publicize data and other information online.
“The results of those efforts are measurable, and they are substantial,” said a White House report released late last week. “To be sure, those efforts are still in progress, a consequence of their ambitious scope.”
But the online information-sharing push could be stymied as Congress looks to cut back on spending, government transparency groups say.
The Electronic Government fund—a key source of financing for transparency-enhancing websites like Performance.gov, USASpending.gov and Data.gov—has been on the budgetary chopping block in the past, and seems to be again. For fiscal year 2011, Congress appropriated only $8 million for the E-Gov fund, down from $34 million in fiscal year 2010. The cut sparked an outcry from good government groups and prompted Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to call the cuts “penny wise and pound foolish.”
Now both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees want to combine funding for the the E-Gov program with funding for other types of government information services for fiscal year 2012 — but those proposals seem likely to still leave E-Gov well below where it was in fiscal year 2010.
The House appropriations bill proposes $50 million for E-Gov funding combined with funding for the Office of Citizen Services and Information Technology. The Senate’s version, not yet approved, calls for $39 million for the same combination of programs. The two bills will need to be reconciled, but the totals in both versions fall well short of the Obama administration’s request for those combined initiatives, which totaled $74 million.
In the current fiscal environment, slashing budgets may simply be inevitable. But if thecost-cuting efforts on Capitol Hill succeed, they “would make it more difficult for this administration to move forward with plans to leverage technology for a more open government,” said Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, an organization that advocates for government transparency and accountability.
The Obama administration's own report acknowledges the challenges.
“There is no ‘Open’ button that can be pushed to render the federal government more open overnight,” the report says. “Creating a more open government instead requires, as the President has instructed, sustained commitment—by public officials and employees at all levels of government.”