The E-Government Fund is once again in danger of being swallowed up.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government passed the fiscal 2014 appropriations bill with a provision to merge the E-Government Fund and the Federal Citizen Services Fund to create an Information and Engagement Fund for citizens.
“While these funds were created at different periods of time and developed different programs, they share a common objective — making it easier for citizens to understand and interact with their government,” the subcommittee wrote in the draft report on the bill released today. “Whether that means delivering information in the mail or in a tweet, answering questions on the phone or online, or tracking grants and business opportunities, the purpose of ‘Information and Engagement for Citizens’ is to provide electronic or other methods of providing access and understanding of federal information, benefits, and services to citizens, businesses, other governments, and the media.”
The full committee is marking up the spending bill Wednesday.
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Merged fund totals less than White House request
The subcommittee approved a total of $40 million for the merged fund, about $14.9 million less than what President Barack Obama asked for in his budget request for the two funds separately and about $6.5 million less than what Congress appropriated in 2013.
“The committee expects the funds provided for these activities, combined with efficiency gains and resource prioritization will result in increased delivery of information to the public and in the ease of transaction with the government,” the report stated.
The committee also is reducing the funds because the Office of Management and Budget is transferring the operation and maintenance of USASpending.gov from the General Services Administration to the Treasury Department. The E-Government Fund presumably would no longer be used to support the effort.
The subcommittee also cut back the administration’s request for OMB’s Data Driven Innovation fund. Lawmakers approved $5 million for this effort to improve management of IT. The White House had requested $14 million, including $5 million for the Evidence Based Innovation fund.
“In order to better understand the results of the administration’s IT reform efforts and the savings generated, bill language is continued requiring the submission of quarterly reports on savings identified by fiscal year, agency and appropriation,” the report stated. “This information will not only inform the committee on the results of OMB’s IT reforms but will also inform the committee’s decisions on funding IT projects within agencies across the federal government.”
Additionally, the committee’s draft report calls on OMB to provide guidance to agencies on using transaction-based and no-cost funding models.
The committee wants OMB to tell agencies how to calculate potential savings from the use of these types of IT contracting models and detail best practices.
“The committee directs OMB to report within 90 days after enactment of this act on the use of transaction-based or no cost funding models for procuring information technology goods and services,” the report stated. “The report shall include information on transaction-based or no-cost funding model use by agencies; quantifiable costs savings and cost avoidance through their use; plans to continue or expand their future use; and the status of the issuance of guidance to agencies regarding their use”
The committee also encourages OMB to promote the use of business-management techniques to improve how agencies meet goals and reduce wasteful spending.
Full-court press to rescue the fund
This is the second time in three years the House Appropriations Committee is trying to merge the E-Government Fund with the Citizen Services Fund. In the fiscal 2012 Omnibus spending bill, the Senate rejected an attempted merger and chose to keep the funds separate.
The White House and nonprofit good government groups came out strongly against the merger, and in the end, the pressure worked as the omnibus bill included $4.4 million more than in the marked up bill.
This time around the full-court press is beginning to rescue the fund.
The Center for Effective Government and the Sunlight Foundation wrote to House Appropriations Committee leaders July 12 asking them to support full funding for the E-Government Fund and not to merge it.
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“The E-Gov Fund has a proven track record of successful transparency projects that have delivered efficiency improvements and increased government accountability. For instance, USASpending.gov and the IT Dashboard have helped root out government waste and inefficiency and recently led to the elimination of some $3 billion in failing technology projects. Performance.gov enables the public to monitor agency progress in cutting waste, streamlining government, and improving performance,” the two organizations said. “In addition, E-Gov Fund projects provide the framework for vibrant private-sector business and job creation. The thousands of government data sets now available through Data.gov are building blocks for innovative new IT products. For instance, the search engine Bing now integrates Medicare quality data into searches for hospitals. Brightscope, a start-up company, has raised $2 million in venture capital and created 30 jobs through their analysis of retirement plan data from the Department of Labor.”
The Senate’s support of the provision is unclear.
“The Senate Appropriations Committee originally pursued a similar merged approach back in 2011, but after concerns were raised by the administration and key senators, including Senator [Tom] Carper (D-Del.), the two funds were separated in the final product,” said a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee aide. “Chairman Carper’s staff continues to monitor the language as it makes its way through the House. He wants to ensure that the E-Gov fund continues to receive the funding it needs to carry out its important missions successfully.”
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee has yet to consider the Financial Services and General Government bill.
The House subcommittee also wants OMB and the General Services Administration to submit expenditure plans before obligating money.
“The plan should describe the projects selected; and the budget, timeline, objectives, and expected benefits and savings realized for each project,” the draft report stated.
Finally, the committee also wants to give GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT) access to up to $90 million a year in reimbursements from agencies, user fees for publications ordered by the public, payments from private entities for services and gifts from the public.
The E-Government Fund has had a checkered history since Congress created it as part of the E-Government Act of 2002. Congress never approved the White House’s requested amount for the first six years of the program. And after approving the Obama administration’s full request the first two years of his presidency, the fund has faced challenges ever since.
At one point in May 2011, OMB prepared to shutter several websites and initiatives supported by the fund because the House allocated only $2 million instead of the $35 million requested. The White House negotiated with Congress to increase the E-Government Fund to $8 million as part of the continuing resolution. But the decrease in funding ended up closing down two websites.