Are e-gov programs worth the cost?

High-profile federal transparency initiatives such as Data.gov are on the chopping block in Congress, under pressure to prove they provide real value.

High-profile federal transparency and innovation initiatives such as Data.gov and Apps.gov are on the chopping block in Congress, and both supporters and critics say it’s difficult to measure whether the programs are as effective as they are trailblazing.

A dozen or so of the Obama administration’s Electronic Government Fund programs are facing stagnation and shrinkage under recent House and Senate actions -- including Data.gov, which has been viewed as a global model for freeing government data; Apps.gov, where federal agencies can facilitate adoption of social media and cloud products; and Challenge.gov, a Web-based platform for agencies to hold innovation competitions.


Related story:

House panel would restore a small portion of transparency funding


A major factor affecting the budget debates is that many experts believe the General Services Administration’s e-government programs do not easily fit within the traditional modes of being assessed against specific performance metrics.

“The e-government initiatives have a start-up mentality, and they are meant to be incubators of innovation,” said Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation watchdog group. “With a relatively small amount of funding, they are delivering innovation. That is very different from the typical federal information technology investment process.”

On the other hand, Jon Desenberg, policy director for the Performance Institute, agreed it was difficult to measure value, but he also was skeptical about the initiatives’ worth.

Desenberg contends that the current performance metrics used by federal auditors often regard an activity -- such as creating a website -- as being inherently valuable, rather than judging the activity for how it impacts federal decision-making and taxpayers.

“We should be trying to get away from activity-measure metrics because an activity measure is not any indicator of achievement,” Desenberg said. “The government needs to do better than that. American people won’t stand for this much longer. Just because you are busy doing it, it’s not an outcome. Putting data sets online (as in Data.gov) is not any kind of result,” he added.

As an alternative, Desenberg proposed that in the short run, it would be reasonable to measure how many people are utilizing the transparency initiatives as an indicator of their success. In the longer term, new metrics should be devised to measure outcomes, such as whether Data.gov information is being used in budget discussions, he added.

Meanwhile, time is running out for Data.gov and other programs facing additional budget cuts. While at its height, in fiscal 2010, the e-government fund had $34 million. In fiscal 2011, Congress reduced its funding to $8 million, resulting in termination of several of its programs, including the FedSpace social network for federal employees.

Further reductions could be on the way. The House voted in June on an appropriations package estimated to include approximately $13 million to $16 million for the e-government fund, while the Senate Appropriations Committee on Sept. 15 approved an estimated $7.4 million for the fund, according to Schuman. Both figures are estimates because both House and Senate combined the e-government budget with that of another account, making it difficult to quantify expenditures for e-government as a separate entity.

Weighing in the debate is the Government Accountability Office’s recent lukewarm review of the e-government programs issued on Sept. 23. The GAO assessed four major programs of the fund — Data.gov, FedSpace, Citizen Services Dashboard and FedRamp — and concluded they had made “varying progress toward their goals.”

Desenberg said that even with open government, programs should be examined for effectiveness, such as how many people are actually using the programs.

“Our feeling is that all the data in the world is not worth much if no one is looking at it,” Desenberg said. “I don’t see much being done with this information. Are we making budget decisions based on this stuff? Our mission is performance and accountability, not just throwing random information on the Web,” he added.

But Schuman believes that while the value of transparency may be difficult to measure in dollars, open dissemination of government information is a critical part of informing and involving citizens and its value should not be underestimated.

“Everyone talks about transparency and open government as being the means to democracy, efficiency and business goals,” Schuman said. “Restoring $34 million for the transparency accounts seems like a very small amount for something so significant.”

He also predicts that dramatic cuts would essentially cause the e-government programs to stagnate or be canceled, seriously hampering the struggling efforts of federal agencies to improve efficiency through innovation. “In these e-government programs, the government is taking the lead, trying out new approaches, and doing it quickly, in less than a year or two. That is unprecedented,” Schuman said.

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