What Does the President's Budget Mean for Transparency?

The president's budget request for fiscal year 2012, released on Feb. 14, is the opening bid in a months-long process to decide how much the federal government will spend on everything from the Navy to open government efforts. The administration's budget proposal is difficult to analyze in terms of open government commitments because it doesn’t include line-item categories for transparency activities. However, it does provide some clues about increases and cuts.

Freedom of information isn't free. To the contrary, transparency advocates have long argued that government often fails to adequately budget for open government initiatives. Without the right human and technical resources, even the best transparency policy will fall victim to poor implementation.

Requesting Adequate Resources

In November 2008, a coalition of transparency advocates published Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-To-Know Agenda: Recommendations to President-elect Obama and Congress. The report recognized that "often, there are inadequate resources for disclosure, whether to implement FOIA or for tackling e-government initiatives. Sufficient money, staff, skills, or incentives are not provided to create and sustain a 21st century right-to-know environment."

The report recommended that the president set aside sufficient funds for FOIA and e-government implementation, among other measures. The administration has made some movement in this direction: Attorney General Eric Holder's March 2009 FOIA memo directed agency Chief FOIA Officers to recommend "adjustments to agency practices, personnel, and funding as may be necessary." In addition, a March 2010 memo by then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and White House Counsel Bob Bauer directed agencies to "assess whether you are devoting adequate resources to responding to FOIA requests."

Challenge of Analysis

Despite the directives, change is hard to see in the budget documents. The president's budget does not summarize government-wide expenses or initiatives relating to FOIA or open government, nor do any of the administration's 22 "fact sheets on key issues." Additionally, the budget's detailed appendix does not detail FOIA or open government spending in each agency.

Even in the agencies' exhaustive budget justifications to Congress, transparency spending is unevenly reported. Many agencies do not detail their spending on FOIA implementation, instead grouping it with other responsibilities such as public relations. Likewise, initiatives to proactively post documents or data online are frequently buried within aggregate information technology spending.

Funding for FOIA

There are some budget changes that derive from the Obama administration’s emphasis on open government. The Justice Department's budget justification includes an additional $467,000 to hire five new staff in its Office of Information Policy, in response to increased FOIA requests and the Open Government Directive.

The National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) budget document indicates no change in the budget for the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the government's FOIA ombudsman. This stationary funding level comes despite a June 2010 Senate report that recommended doubling the office's budget.

However, it is important to remember that more spending does not necessarily mean more openness. For instance, the State Department's budget justification includes $166,000 in new FOIA funding. The money will be used to hire an additional attorney – not to process FOIA requests or to ensure compliance, but to increase defense against FOIA litigation.

Expanded Environmental Information

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget justification repeatedly mentions plans to improve information dissemination. This includes data related to topics such as air toxics, greenhouse gases, drinking water systems, and toxic chemicals.

EPA also plans to move to electronic reporting of compliance data, with the goal of eliminating paper-based reporting. According to the document, the transition to electronic reporting could "substantially reduce the costs of collecting, sharing, and analyzing compliance information." EPA intends to use an approach similar to the e-file system for federal income taxes, where reporting software is provided by the private sector rather than the agency.

Changes to E-Government Funding

The budget also proposes a new $60 million Information Technology fund to be managed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), with the ability to transfer funds to agencies. According to OMB's budget justification, the fund would be used "to establish a coherent Federal strategy for centralized, efficient provision of IT services and infrastructure across the Government." Some of those services, though likely not all, might enhance transparency.

Cuts to Archival Programs

NARA's Electronic Records Archives (ERA), a program to preserve and provide access to electronic records, will be launched sooner than previously planned, which allows the agency to eliminate the $37 million previously budgeted for further development. The accelerated deployment resulted from the TechStat accountability program managed by OMB, part of Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra's IT management reforms. ERA has been plagued with problems: a recent Government Accountability Office report estimated that cost overruns could total up to $1.4 billion over the program's lifetime.

Several archival programs that support access to non-federal records will also see cuts. Reductions include:

  • $22 million cut from the National Endowment for the Humanities (a 13 percent decrease)
  • $39 million cut from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (14 percent)
  • $8 million cut from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (62 percent)
  • $30 million cut, the entire budget, from Save America's Treasures and Preserve America grants at the National Park Service

Bottom Line

The inconsistent reporting of information activities in the federal budget and agency justifications make it next to impossible to gauge the overall funding of government transparency with any accuracy. The Obama administration has made open government a high policy priority, and there are some indications that the rhetoric is translating into additional resources. Perhaps future budget documents will allow for a greater analysis of the administration's allocations around these issues.

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