E-gov spending doesn't always return investment

Tools

The White House spent about $5 million in developing a social network for federal employees before canceling the project in May 2011 due to lack of funding, according to data from a Government Accountability Office report.

The report, dated Sept. 23, shows that of the $34 million appropriated by Congress during fiscal 2010 for e-government efforts, nearly 15 percent went to "FedSpace," which was to have been a General Services Administration-administered networking and collaboration website. The e-gov fund is controlled mostly by the Office of Management and Budget with input from GSA.

GSA launched a beta version of FedSpace in January 2011 and by May, when then-Federal Chief Information Officer announced its cancellation, about 500 users had signed up to it. Officials told GAO auditors they canceled the project due to funding uncertainty--Congress in fiscal 2011 appropriated $8 million for centralized e-gov spending, considerably less than the $35 million OMB had requested.

FedSpace was the second largest single consumer of e-gov fund spending during fiscal 2010, according to a spending plan submitted to Congress in November 2010. The spending plan underwent slight alteration in March 2011, when GSA officials informed Congress they would redistribute $780,000 of unspent e-gov money toward "efficiency and cost-effectiveness of federal IT" efforts and $1.82 million toward keeping operational federal spending dashboards and data.gov.

USAspending.gov and other dashboards, namely the ITdashboard, performance.gov, PaymentAccuracy.gov and smallbusiness.data.gov received approximately $9.5 million of fiscal 2010 money, the GAO report says.

OMB also allocated $1.5 million for a GSA-administered "citizen engagement platform," which launched a website in August 2010 permitting agencies to set up online communication tools such as blogs and wikis. According to data on the website, citizen.apps.gov, 49 agencies have deployed its tools in 245 instances. GSA appears to have redistributed $300,000 of the platform's $1.5 million budget to other purposes; GSA officials told auditors that funding for the site will run out in July 2011.

Whether many federal users will particularly note its absence is another question. Many of citizen.apps.gov's tools appear to have been scarcely used. For example, the citizen.apps.gov blog for the CIO Council has just one entry, from June 1, 2010, titled "Hello World!" (Commenters are many and varied, however, including those who provided links to a putative Halloween costume seller, a coupon search site and a website that says it will deliver cash, overnight.) Another citizen.apps.gov blog's sole activity appears to be an uploaded picture of Mr. Bill, a disaster-prone clay figurine of 1970s' Saturday Night Live fame.

Many of the wikis created through the website appear also underutilized, although an entry on the "Making Mobile Gov" wiki does include an entry titled "Increase Cash Flow Through Equipment Leasebacks," with a link to a site purporting to offer "alternative funding" for small businesses.

In addition, GSA spent $2.49 million on another later canceled project, the "Citizen Services Dashboard," which was to have displayed metrics of citizen-facing services provided by federal agencies. The project had less than $1,000 of unspent funds at the time of the 2011 redistribution. By the time of the project's cancellation in May 2011, GSA has piloted the dashboard with four agencies but had yet to define metrics for some citizen service goals. GSA officials told auditors they've archived the software code so that it could be made operational if new funding were to become available. 

For more: 
- download the report, GAO-11-775 (.pdf)
- watch an old SNL Mr. Bill embedded video

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