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Financial Transparency is Dwindling at DOI

By Gretchen Gehrke, Marcy Beck, Alejandro Paz, and Grace Poudrier

See Official Report: DOI Deletes Budget Documents from Website 

Overview

There has been a significant reduction in the financial transparency of the Department of the Interior (DOI). Between April and May 2020, DOI removed the budget justifications for all years prior to FY2020 that had been hosted on its DOI.gov website. The URLs for those budget justifications now register as “Page Not Found.” Additionally, budget request highlights (called “Budget in Briefs”) and budget process testimonies have also been removed and now register as either “Access Denied” or “Page Not Found.” Through these removals, DOI has significantly impaired public understanding of the financial trajectory of the Department, and impeded public and Congressional oversight. 

What Has Happened? 

Removal of Past Budget Documents 

Budget justifications are plain-language explanations of how a federal agency or office intends to use the money appropriated to it by Congress. Budget justifications are the primary documents Congress uses in its decisions to appropriate money, and they are some of the only products of the budgeting process geared toward an explicitly broad, non-expert audience. DOI has removed budget justifications for the years preceding Fiscal Year 2020 (the current fiscal year). Until spring of this year, the DOI “Budget Justifications” webpage included budget justification documents for 19 of its agencies and department offices for each year dating back to FY2012. The DOI “Appropriations” (also known as “Budget by Year”) and “Budget in Briefs” webpages used to link to pages with budget justifications and other important fiscal information dating back to 2001. 

The past years’ budget justification documents are no longer available through the DOI website: their URLs now register as “Page Not Found.” The links provided to past years’ budget webpages from the “Appropriations” and “Budget Briefs” webpages now register as “Access Denied.” 

The budget justifications were removed from the “Budget Justifications” page sometime between April 20, 2020 and May 4, 2020. It is likely that the past years’ Appropriations and Budget in Brief pages were taken down around the same time, though we can only confirm that the pages became restricted access sometime between January 2019 and June 2020. 

While it is the responsibility of DOI, not agencies within the department, to make budget justification documents available to the public, some agencies within DOI, such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the National Park Service (NPS), make their current and past budget justifications available through their own websites. So while the public could not access the documents through the DOI website, some of the budget justifications could be accessed by searching the individual agency websites. Other agencies and offices within the DOI, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Office of the Solicitor, have not historically made these budget documents available, so DOI’s removals mean that they are no longer available to the public by any means. The availability of past budget justifications is now a patchwork, with a notable void of material for departmental offices and operations. Even with extensive searching on sub-departmental websites and archival agency and non-profit websites, members of the public can still only find budget justifications for less than half of DOI’s Congressionally appropriated annual budgets since 2012, and a significantly smaller fraction of those in earlier years. 

Current and Upcoming Budget Documents

For fiscal years 2020 and 2021, DOI includes links to budget justifications for 19 offices and agencies within the department in two places on its website: its Budget and Performance Portal and its Office of Budget. Several links do not work to the 2021 budget justifications on the Budget and Performance Portal page itself and to the 2020 budget justifications on the BPP’s Budget Justifications page: of the 19 links provided, links to six FY2021 budget justifications (BLM, BOEM, BSEE, BTFA [formerly OST], USGS, and WFM) and three FY2020 budget justifications (BIA, NRDA, and OSMRE) register as “Page Not Found.” Interestingly, all of the links to the 2020 and 2021 budget justifications work on the two remaining fiscal year appropriations webpages within the DOI Office of Budget website. 

Why Does This Matter? 

Broader Context of Federal Budgeting Transparency 

Budget justifications are the primary means by which the public and Congress can learn about and evaluate agencies’ use of money. Billions of taxpayer dollars go toward agencies like DOI every year, and budget justifications are the only public information about agencies’ intentions for that money. 

Our findings underscore the need for archival standards to foster fiscal transparency across federal agencies. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requires that budget justifications be made available to the public within two weeks of submission to Congress (OMB Circular A-11 section 22.6(c)) by posting on “the Internet at a vanity federal government URL (e.g., agencyXYZ.gov/CJ)” but does not specify how long the budget justifications should be made available, nor does it require the documents to be posted to a central, cross-agency location. Standardization of the location and minimal archival record for agency budget documents would facilitate greater fiscal transparency across agencies and efficiency for public and Congressional research. 

Many federal agencies do make several years’ budget justifications available, as DOI did prior to these removals. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) links to budget justifications dating back to 2012 on its Budget webpage; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) links to budget justifications going back to 2011, and other agency financial and performance information going back to 1999 on its Historical Planning, Budgets, and Results Reports webpage. The cost of continuing to provide access to budget justification pdfs for several years through agency websites is negligible, and actually requires less effort than their removal. There has been no stated reason why DOI removed historic budget documents. 

In Sum

There has been a significant reduction in the financial transparency of the Department of the Interior through these website changes. The removal of past 8-19 years of budget justifications strips the public’s ability to assess DOI’s current budget requests and understand them in the context of the fiscal year, in relation to other departments and agencies, or as part of a longer trajectory of department funding. With recent DOI annual budgets ranging from 11 to 15 billion dollars requested from Congress, taxpayers have a right to know how DOI has spent its money.