Sunlight has an update on the status of funding for e-government programs:
- Draft H. Appropriations Bill Would Slightly Increase E-Gov Fund, by Daniel Schuman, Sunlight Foundation blog (June 15, 2011).
In a legislative twist, funding for the Electronic Government Fund appears to have been combined with funding for the Office of Citizen Services, making it difficult to figure out how much money will actually go towards e-gov websites. My best guess is that the legislation would increase the money available for e-gov to $13m from the $8m appropriated in FY 2011, which is still far off from the $34m available in FY 2010.
OMB Watch has a good overview of what went on with the e-gov funding this year and how the budget will affect transparency and open government. The article says that H.R. 1473, which President Obama signed into law on April 15, provided only $8 million for the E-Gov Fund, a 76.5 percent cut.
- The Transparency-Killing Budget, OMB Watch (June 1, 2011)
The article ends on a hopeful note saying that the funding could be restored next year and there is bi-partisan support for the E-Gov Fund.
Given the current political climate, it is hard for me to be optimistic that there will be sufficient funding for government information production, dissemination, and preservation in the near future, much less for the long term. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which examines federal and state fiscal policies and programs that affect low and moderate income families and individuals, reports that the House Judiciary Committee began considering a constitutional balanced budget amendment that "would force Congress to enact the Republican Study Committee's (RSC) extreme budget plan or something similar to it." That plan would cut total funding for non-defense discretionary programs by approximately 70 percent in 2021.
- Balanced Budget Amendment Would Require More Extreme Cuts Than Ryan Plan, By Robert Greenstein, James R. Horney and Kelsey Merrick, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (June 6, 2011)
This is the part of the budget that includes veterans' medical care, most homeland security activities, border protection, and the FBI. It also includes education, environmental protection, protecting the nation's food and water supply, and medical research, as well as services for disadvantaged or abused children, frail elderly people, and people with severe disabilities.
Even if this amendment doesn't become law and even if the specific RSC budget doesn't pass, it is hard to imagine, when such huge cuts are being seriously considered, that there will be adequate support in Congress for Data.gov, GPO, FDsys, American Factfinder, and other government information projects. Even if budgets are adequate to fund minimal dissemination of "current" information on government web sites, it is hard to imagine there will be adequate funding to keep online -- or even preserve offline -- older "non-current" digital information (e.g., last year's annual reports, non-current census information, "out of date" economic data).
It is much easier to imagine that libraries that rely on pointing to government web sites for government information may find themselves pointing to empty pages.
When Congress is willing to cut medical care for veterans, homeland security, services for abused children, and protection of our water supply, much less government openness initiatives for even current information, it is hard to imagine that it will be willing to fund digital preservation of government information.
Who will decide what is discarded and what is kept? Who will decide what is worth preserving and what is not? If digital government information were deposited in FDLP libraries, every FDLP library would at least have the opportunity to make its own decisions on what is worth preserving for its own community. If digital government information were deposited in FDLP libraries, FDLP libraries could work together and collaborate on solutions to preserve digital information for the future. But if FDLP libraries do not demand digital deposit, there may be no files left to preserve.
OMB to cut two transparency programs, suspend others, By Joseph Marks, NextGov (05/24/2011).
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.
...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.
Kundra on e-gov cuts: no project unaffected, by Daniel Schuman, Sunlight Foundation (May 24, 2011).
Data quality may suffer....New data will be harder to come by.
Recently, President Obama issued an executive ordering the streamlining of federal websites. Last week, OMB Watch sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget with recommendations for its guidance on implementing the order including the suggestion that "customer service doesn't always look like filling out a form or receiving a payment. Providing information is a major government service...."
Informing and engaging the public is a critical government service for many agencies, and improving those services should properly be considered within the scope of the order;
Successfully soliciting meaningful customer feedback requires embracing the principles of participation and collaboration embodied in President Obama’s memorandum on transparency and open government; and
Agencies should be mindful that, although they may use customer service considerations to improve their interactions with regulated entities, their true customers are always the American people and not the regulated community.
-- Letter, (May 13, 2011) to Jeffrey Zients Office of Management and Budget, Re: Executive Order 13571 Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service, from Sean Moulton Director and Gavin Baker, OMB Watch.
The letter goes on to note that "regulated entities are not the 'Customer,'" saying: "the order should not be seen as permission to develop an overly familiar relationship with regulated entities or place too much emphasis on the stated needs of their regulated communities. We urge OMB to include guidance that reminds agencies that the public is the primary customer and cautions agencies from overly identifying the regulated entities as customers."
Several years ago, I wrote a legal brief with a retired Navy officer who was a private attorney in a small law firm in Pennsylvania. As an active retired officer, this particular attorney frequently accepted pro bono U.S. Navy cases representing veterans in Federal District Court against the Bureau of Veteran’s Affairs (BVA).
One summer day, the attorney admitted that he was frustrated with a new case in which a Korean War veteran had been denied retroactive health benefits by the BVA. The veteran had evidently failed to understand the legal forms that the BVA had provided him and so his request for an appeal of the BVA’s decision denying those retroactive benefits had been deemed untimely; the appeal period had passed. I was deeply interested in this case, and I offered to help him with the research and writing the brief to be submitted in federal court.
In researching the law, I realized that the legal administrative tests, cases, and terminology all took a back seat to one particularly glaring issue which I noticed on the forms. Just how was a veteran, who at this point was over 65 years of age, supposed to understand the legal difference between “shall” and “may?” In other words, how was he expected to understand that “shall” was not a word signifying that something was optional, but was actually one which signified something mandatory?
In this instance, if he did not read, understand, or respond to the “notice of right to appeal” section of the benefits form (which, by the way, was at the very bottom of the form), then his rights to appeal the BVA’s decision “shall” expire, which meant that his non-response ultimately closed out his case. But in other portions of the form, the permissive word “may” had been used in various paragraphs. So, he had interpreted the notice section to also mean the optional “may” and his request to appeal was therefore untimely, according to the BVA. Thus began my entry into the world of obscure government forms with conflicting language and even more obscure government personnel.
Times have changed since then, and I am now a library student learning about the current changes in government documents as I prepare to enter the world of document librarianship. Government agencies are moving towards the “e-government” trend, whereby, among other things, the online accessibility to forms and assistance are, ostensibly, much greater. But I am left to wonder whether the agencies’ forms, in these times of “googling” and “tweeting” and “friending” and mobile, on-the-go information access, have changed in substance.
Even if the delivery method has changed, will the user, many of whom are also library patrons, be able to navigate these forms and their implications? Or will the “plain English” movement, which permeated some aspects of the real estate (including various state broker contract forms), bankruptcy (see here and here), and securities industries, finally cause changes in more and more of the various government agencies’ forms as well?
Incidentally, we won the BVA case, whereby the BVA opted to settle in lieu of changing their forms, and our client received his retroactive benefits – in full.
Johanna Blakely-Bourgeois, Pratt SILS
First I’d like to express my gratitude to James Jacobs and Debbie Rabina for providing us with this opportunity. I’m looking forward to guest blogging this month.
This past summer, I lived and worked at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I didn’t work closely with government info sources during my time there, so for this post, I spent some time with the presidential website looking at the availability of digital publications and what kinds of e-gov tools are on offer. I also checked in with coordinator of access to collections, circulation and technical processes at Biblioteca Ludwig Von Mises, Regina De La Vega, to get her perspective on government resources in Guatemala.
The presidential site of Guatemala, The Government of Alvaro Colom, serves, in some ways as a publicity site for the first family. There is a slide show of news items relevant to presidential goals, photo albums of the first lady and presidential activities, videos describing various initiatives and biographies of the president and first lady. While top navigation features a tab entitled “press room” in some ways, the whole site feels like a press site. Almost at the very bottom of the page are links to presidential programs many of which are entirely accessible online and provide useful tools and services for Guatemalans. Sites such as “Governing with the People” (a compilation of governmental decisions from all departments and states) and the Public Information Office (a mix of everything from contact information to leases to audits) provide a high level of access to government information.
So how do actual librarians make use of these tools and resources? I was fascinated to hear my opinions about the publicity elements of the site echoed in Mrs. De La Vegas assessment “In Guatemala I think (a very personal opinion) the government publications are more oriented to advertise the work of the current government” She finds the most useful items to be those published by the ministry of education. They produce materials primarily in print but some are available online and are indispensable for distance education particularly in rural areas of the country. Mrs. De La Vega tells me that, at the reference desk students do not often request information the government releases and that typically they approach the institutions that publish them directly. Biblioteca Ludwig Von Mises does collect and catalogue some governmental publications, however. Mrs. De La Vega said the most commonly requested governmental materials are various statistical resources, as Economics is a huge department at UFM.
So, however free the government information may be, perhaps the real trick for librarians is getting students to actually use them!
Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for a post from one of my classmates on Thursday.
I was recently thinking about the diffusion process behind open data initiatives. Local and federal governments across the world are incorporating their versions of "free data." This movement has even travelled up north, such as in the village I currently reside in; which released its first batch of data on November 2009. It seems all too coincidental that many levels of government adopted "free data" soon after the launch of Data.gov by the U.S. government in May 2009. Some questions that pop into my mind are:
1. When and where exactly did this open data movement originate from?
2. Are left-wing local/federal governments stronger supporters of this policy?
I invite the readers to share any insight they have regarding these (open?) questions.
Before I begin, I would like to first thank Mr. Jacobs for the opportunity to contribute to this blog. Hopefully I can provide some new perspectives about government information through the eyes of an (aspiring) economist.
There is no doubt that E-Government is all the rage these days. One justification for E-Government is that technology makes government more transparent, and transparency deters corruption. To the best of my knowledge, there are actually few studies that look at whether E-Government actually prevents the government from behaving badly. There is one recent study by Anderson in Information Economics and Policy that attempts to identify this relationship.
Using an indexes for corruption and E-Government, he confirms that E-Government can indeed reduce corruption, even after "controlling for any propensity for corrupt governments to be more or less aggressive in adopting e-government initiatives." (pg 210) A broader claim one may extrapolate from this study is that transparency prevents corruption.
E-Government acts as a mechanism for transparency, in a similar manner as media/press. That said, a study by Snyder and Stromberg finds that American politicians don't work as hard (for their constituents) if they receive less press coverage.
One advantage of E-Government is that the government knows more about their inner workings than information starved reporters. The trade-off though is that government can cherry-pick what information is revealed; why would any rational corrupt government official agree to reveal information that supports claims of his bad behavior? To that end, reporters in search for political scandals are more likely to shine the light on bad behavior than E-Government.
Here is an interesting organization that you might not be aware of, the Digital Government Society of North America.
The Digital Government Society of America (DGSNA) is a global multi-disciplinary organization of scholars, researchers, educators, students, government professionals, and practitioners who are interested in the development and impact of digital government or e-government. DGSNA focuses on creating a support network of individuals interested in the linkages among the democratic process, government management, innovation, information, and technology.
Benefits of membership include:
- Opportunity to exchange knowledge and information with other members in North America and throughout the world
- (In development) access to a membership database to find others who share your interests or have special expertise
- Discounted registration fees for our annual conference
- Subscription to a monthly e-newsletter, dgOnline
- Access to a library of over 2,000 articles and papers
- Discounted access to scholarly and professional journals
To join you are required to pay a membership fee, however, they do provide some excellent resources for free, including a nice collection of references, as well as a very useful library of citations (2000+ peer reviewed articles).
* Although this is not intended to be a plug, in matters of full disclosure, I am a current member of DGSNA.