A withdrawal from sunlight? [Updated 4/14]

[UPDATE: On April 12, The Hill reported that the new budget agreement between President Obama and congressional leaders sets a funding level of $8 million for FY2011. A GovExec.com/National Journal article also noted a Sunlight Foundation reaction: “Little is known yet about why lawmakers cut so deeply into the transparency budget because ‘much of the budget negotiation process was almost entirely done in secret’.” –4/14/11]

Despite the Obama Administration’s repeated, fervent statements of support for transparency and technological innovation vis-a-vis government data, Federal News Radio reported on March 31 that the Office of Management and Budget plans to shutter seven e-government sites for lack of funding within two months – and that two more data-aggregation sites may not survive the summer.  (The House one-week budget extension would keep those sites open, but at this writing neither the Senate nor President Obama have agreed to this approach.)

Funding for the recently-developed websites comes from the e-government fund – but the Administration’s request for $35 million in FY2011 (after $34 million in FY2010) fell on skeptical ears in the House (which proposed $2 million) and the Senate (which proposed $20 million). If the Administration can only pry pennies on the dollar from Congress, it will start scaling back websites and data within weeks – thus saving millions in the short run – but degrading millions of dollars already committed and invested – and ignoring the benefits of improving oversight of billions of dollars in federal spending. (The Sunlight Foundation had blogged about some of this on March 23, and has a “Save The Data! campaign.)

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra described the IT Dashboard as helping to save $3 billion on information technology projects, but a government official said that site, data.gov, and paymentaccuracy.gov could lose support as soon as April 20, with several internal government websites following suit. Two more sites, USAspending.gov and Apps.gov/now, would survive until July 30, but not necessarily much longer.

Now, budget discussions between Congress and the executive branch can be complex, especially with so many different proposals and possibilities in play, and we are hesitant to make any far-reaching analyses. But if Congress and the Administration cannot agree to support transparency and technological initiatives that this president has put so much effort into, our future will be all the darker for it.

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