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Watchdog: In Culling Websites, Don’t Cut Access to Data

The Obama administration’s plan to cut the number of government websites in half is raising concerns about the public’s access to government data.

“I don’t care if there’s one website or 10,000 websites. The question is what information is available to the American people and how it is available,” Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, said Monday.

Ease of access is a primary concern for the nonprofit organization, which advocates for government transparency. Compiling federal spending data in one place, for example, would simplify the tracking process for groups such as Sunlight. But Schuman also argued that maintaining individual sites for federal agencies makes it easier to find agency-specific information.

He said that the 2,000 government sites now in existence might not even cost much to operate, because many of them are static pages.

The administration’s decision to reduce the number of websites as part of an effort to reduce wasteful spending raises questions for Schuman. “Are they getting rid of something that people use?” he asked. “Will the information be available elsewhere?”

President Barack Obama’s unveiling Monday of the Campaign to Cut Waste was thin on such details. In addition to creating an oversight board to identify wasteful projects, Obama called for the reduction in sites and stipulated that no new websites would be created until the goal was met.

The administration plans to consolidate 25 percent of the sites in the next few months and cut the number of stand-alone sites in half over the next year. A statement from Vice President Joseph Biden’s office, which will handle the campaign, said the goal is to target “duplication and waste among federal websites.”

“With so many separate sites, Americans often do not know where to turn for information,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, watchdog groups said they are concerned that Congress could cut funding for valuable government-run transparency sites. The Sunlight Foundation, Public Citizen, OMB Watch, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and dozens of other groups sent a letter to Congress on Monday requesting that lawmakers restore full funding for sites such as USASpending.gov and Data.gov. The sites are funded by the Electronic Government Fund, which saw its budget slashed from $34 million to $8 million for the current fiscal year.

“It’s interesting to be talking about getting rid of a bunch of useless websites, assuming they are useless, but I think [what is] more important is to talk about the major transparency websites and whether they will have funds,” Schuman said.

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