Federal transparency clouded in uncertainty

The proposed budget cuts that would shutter Data.gov sparked a debate about what would be lost

The latest budget battles are putting an existential squeeze on federal websites such as Data.gov and USAspending.gov, which has drawn supporters and critics into a debate about the goals, value and effectiveness of sites intended to promote government transparency.

In the face of a proposed $27 million reduction in the E-Government Fund that pays for the sites, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made a personal pledge to keep them operating.

“The specific funding goes away, but reprogramming authority would still be available," Issa said during a panel discussion hosted by the Association of Government Accountants, as reported by Federal News Radio. "Our view is, on a case-by-case basis, we will be able to keep them open."

Issa is hardly a fan of every Obama-era Web initiative. In August 2010, he accused the administration of using federal websites such as Recovery.gov as propaganda to advance the president’s political agenda.

But Issa’s across-the-aisle support for Data.gov and USAspending.gov drew praise from John Wonderlich, policy director at open-government advocacy group Sunlight Foundation. Wonderlich wrote on the organization’s blog that few lawmakers have been willing to support the sites during the recent budget fights.

“If we entirely defund USAspending or Data.gov, we wouldn't be erasing an 'Obama initiative' as much as we'd be removing the only portal to federal grants and contracts or shutting down the clearinghouse for federal bulk data access,” Wonderlich writes. “Transparency reform often functions through political incentives, but it isn't a political phenomenon. It's a democratic phenomenon.”

Laudable intentions and lofty language aside, others have questioned whether the federal transparency sites are accomplishing much.

A website called Nerd Collider hosted a discussion about Data.gov earlier this month and kicked it off by pointing out that the number of unique visitors to the site has plateaued at about 10,000 per month.

Kate Ray, Nerd Collider's co-founder, summarized the results of the online discussion by highlighting questions raised about who the site’s users are, why it's so hard to use and how the site’s supporters measure success. “It’s unclear whether Data.gov is aimed at journalists, academic researchers, entrepreneurs or special-interest groups,” Ray writes.

James Hendler, a professor and an artificial intelligence researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an adviser to the Data.gov team, defended the site during the Nerd Collider discussion. However, he said there is room for improvement. He said tracking the number of unique visitors is misleading. The more important measurement is how often data is downloaded from the site, and that occurred 100,000 times in February, the most recent month for which figures were available.

The real value of Data.gov is what those 10,000 visitors per month don’t see, and that could be lost if the sites go dark, writes Harlan Yu on the "Freedom to Tinker" blog, hosted by Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy.

Data.gov “plays a crucial behind-the-scenes role, setting standards for open data and helping individual departments and agencies live up to those standards,” Yu writes. He said the loss of the program would negatively affect the quantity and quality of government data posted in the future.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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