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OMB to cut two transparency programs, suspend others

Two transparency initiatives and numerous improvements to open government programs will be scrapped as a result of a 75 percent funding cut lawmakers agreed to in April to avert a federal shutdown, officials said Tuesday.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra's office will cancel Fedspace, a collaborative site where government officials could network and share thoughts, concerns and best practices related to technology projects, according to a letter Kundra sent Tuesday to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the subcommittee on Federal Financial Management.

Kundra's office will also stop work on a planned citizen-services dashboard, which would have gathered and posted their feedback on federal websites and other Web-based services, the letter said. The letter was in response to correspondence Carper sent Kundra in April seeking details about the likely cuts.

The government's most visible and popular transparency initiatives will stay in operation, such as USAspending.gov, which tracks government spending on contracts, and the IT Dashboard, which details spending on information technology projects. But planned improvements will be put on hold, according to Kundra's letter.

"For example, we have postponed plans for IT Dashboard enhancements that would have allowed better integration with agency systems for investment monitoring," he said. "Limited funding will increase delays in getting new data sets posted to Data.gov, [a repository for government data sets] and will limit our ability to stand up new communities of interest on that platform."

Funding for the electronic-government transparency initiatives was cut from $35 million to $8 million in the 11th hour deal struck between House Republicans and the Obama administration to keep the government running through the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. Open government advocates, including Carper and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, have criticized the cuts but, so far, been unable to reverse them.

Carper struck an even-keeled note in a statement Tuesday, praising Kundra's "prudent decision to keep as many of the e-gov fund websites operational as possible" and suggesting some of the sites could be combined to save costs without cutting services.

"At a time when government needs to look in every nook and cranny to cut spending and find savings, we can't afford to end a powerful tool like the e-gov fund," Carper said.

A spokesman for Issa said the congressman had not received or seen a full copy of the letter.

Kundra said in his letter to Carper that he was hopeful the e-gov fund would be ramped back up to his $34 million request in the 2012 fiscal budget being debated now.

Gavin Baker, an analyst at the open government advocacy organization OMB Watch, echoed that hope Tuesday, but told Nextgov the prospects don't look good.

The House hasn't reached a 2012 budget figure for the e-gov fund line item yet, but it has plans to cut the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee's budget allocation, from which the fund is drawn, by about 9.5 percent from its 2011 figure.

That means e-gov will likely have to compete with several new initiatives launched by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, also included in that budget, just to reach its 2011 figure, Baker said.

The Senate hasn't released its top-line budget numbers yet.

Baker said he's relieved the 2011funding cuts didn't force the closure of USAspending.gov and other major transparency sites, but he is concerned the government appears to be reversing course on transparency only a few years after it made major strides.

The e-gov fund, which was created by the 2002 E-Government Act, was slated to receive $45 million in 2003 and ramp up to $150 million by 2006. Instead, it never received more than a few million dollars annually until the Obama administration.

"We feel it's a mistake to step back at this time, when we've just turned the corner and started to catch up with technology," Baker said.

This story was clarified to reflect the fact that Rep. Issa had not seen a copy of the federal CIO's letter when asked for a comment.

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