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Government performance website may not meet congressional requirements

Without additional funding, the Office of Management and Budget may be unable to meet the October 2012 deadline Congress gave it for producing an easily searchable public website detailing the performance of all government programs, an administration official said.

That website, Performance.gov, is funded through the federal electronic-government fund. The fiscal 2011 appropriation for that fund was cut from $35 million to $8 million in the frantic bartering between the Obama administration and House Republicans that averted a government shutdown in April.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra listed Performance.gov as one of a group of programs his office would "maintain . . . at their current levels of operation" following the funding cut, but that would receive "no enhancements or other development to address needs for improvement," in a letter to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on Federal Financial Management.

It wasn't clear from the letter, dated Tuesday, whether Performance.gov's public launch -- which the government's Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients earlier this month told Carper's subcommittee would be coming in a matter of weeks -- counted as such an enhancement.

Nor was it clear whether improvements to the site's search function planned, in part, to meet statutory requirements in the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act would be possible at the lower funding levels.

A government-only version of Performance.gov is already up and running.

"We believe we will be able to meet the statutory deadline [of October 2012 for the GPRA-compliant site]," the administration official told Nextgov this week, "though our ability to do so, and the level of functionality the site provides will, in part, be determined by future funding levels."

The official, who asked not to be named, didn't back away from Zients' "couple of weeks" time frame for the site's public launch, but did not provide a specific launch date. The site will likely be implemented incrementally, the official said.

The administration's 2012 budget request includes $34 million for the e-gov fund, but early budget figures from the House suggest the fund is unlikely to receive more than its 2011 appropriation.

The GPRA Modernization Act, which updated a decades-old predecessor, requires agencies to submit to the website quantifiable data on all their programs on a quarterly basis unless the OMB director gives them a waiver because performance data for a program simply isn't quantifiable.

OMB's chief obligation under the act, other than simply maintaining the website and posting data provided by agencies, is to ensure that all the information agencies post to the site is machine-readable and easily searchable, a daunting task considering the volume of data they are likely to produce in coming years.

OMB is also tasked with establishing standard reporting procedures for agencies.

Making performance data easily searchable is nearly as important as producing the data itself, according to Gavin Baker, a policy analyst at OMB Watch, because citizens and even advocacy groups often lack the time or tools to plough through thousand-page government spreadsheets.

"Our kind of Holy Grail has been linking up spending data with needs data and performance data," Baker said, "and if you can tie those together then you can begin to understand the logic behind what the government is doing and you can also get a sense of whether the government is doing it well."

"If there's a program that's meant, for instance, to reduce child hunger, you can judge whether that spending is going to places that have the highest child hunger rates," Baker continued, "and you can see how well the program is actually doing to reduce those rates and how efficient the agency responsible for doing that is."

Kundra told members of the full Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday that his office was doing what it could with reduced funding. Ultimately, though, reduced funding will mean not only reducing transparency but also giving up on some newfound government efficiencies those transparency programs were meant to foster.

"The reality is that transparency is not free," Kundra told the committee. "It costs money and it takes resources."

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