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Obama’s vow to cut federal websites in half is still a distant goal

It already has taken twice as long as President Obama ordered, and yet his administration is still only about halfway to meeting his June 2011 vow to cut the number of federal websites in half within a year — one of the marquee pledges in his Campaign to Cut Waste.

Mr. Obama announced the waste initiative two years ago as he was jockeying over spending with Republicans, who were using their new majority in the House to push for major cuts. The president countered on June 13, 2011, by issuing executive order 13,576 vowing to make cuts of his own.

Two years later, the campaign has posted a mixed record. The administration says it has exceeded its goal of cutting $8 billion from administrative spending in 2012 and has set an even deeper $8.8 billion goal for 2013. But like the websites goal, much of the campaign is only halfway complete.

"They are clearly falling short of their goal," said John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who has established himself as the chief waste-watcher in Congress.

Mr. Coburn's office requested a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, and the analysis showed that little action has been taken over the past year.

In one example, the executive order Mr. Obama issued two years ago told Vice President Joseph R. Biden to hold regular Cabinet meetings to talk about waste. The Congressional Research Service said the most recent meetings it found were more than a year ago.

Lost in the sequester

Mr. Hart said plenty of road maps are out there if the president or Congress wanted to cut waste, including Government Accountability Office reports highlighting tens of billions of dollars in overlapping programs.

"Instead of making a case for GOP 'overreach' in the wake of scandal, the administration should be focused on correcting their problem of 'underreach' on fiscal policy," Mr. Hart said.

Part of the issue may be that Mr. Obama's waste campaign and its $8 billion annual goal have been overshadowed by the budget sequesters, which will require cuts of more than 10 times that amount every year for the rest of this decade.

Still, the administration says the reductions it has made under the waste campaign are real and that many of them took place last year, before sequestration.

Officials said they spent $2 billion less on travel and conferences in 2012 than they did in 2010, they have reduced improper payments from 5.4 percent in 2009 to 4.3 percent, and they have identified $8 billion that they say can be saved by shedding unneeded federal property.

Indeed, the evidence of lower spending on travel and conferences was part of last month's audit report that exposed waste at the Internal Revenue Service. In 2010, the tax agency spent $37.6 million on travel and conferences. That figure dropped to $6.2 million in 2011 and to $4.9 million last year.

Another part of the campaign showing results is the SAVE Award, or Securing American Values and Efficiency, which solicits ideas from front-line employees and chooses a winner. SAVE began as a stand-alone but has become part of the waste campaign.

Last year's winner was from an Education Department worker in Arlington who recommended having federal employees who are eligible sign up for discounted public transit fares for the elderly, which would save the government transit benefit costs.

The administration says it has incorporated 66 of the ideas from the SAVE Award over its last three budgets.

Caught in the web

As pledges go, the vow to cut websites — measured by domain names, such as FBI.gov, WhiteHouse.gov or Data.gov, which is where the list of domains is published — was minor. It doesn't involve major savings in time or money to the government. But Mr. Obama held it out as a tangible symbol of his efforts to cut waste.

He also issued a moratorium on new websites.

By both those measures, though, the administration still has a long way to go.

In June 2011, there were 1,759 web domains. A year later, when Mr. Obama's deadline passed, there were 1,478 domains, a drop of 16 percent. As of last week, there were 1,280 domains, meaning a total cut of 27 percent, little more than halfway to the goal the president wanted to achieve last year.

Analysts say websites are prestige items for many federal managers, who are reluctant to cut them.

Ever more striking is that 15 websites have been created over the past two years, including two by the Treasury Department this year.

MakingHomeAffordable.gov and VerifyPayment.gov didn't exist in January, but are up and running now. The first is a joint project of Treasury and the Housing and Urban Development Department, while the second doesn't contain any information and merely redirects visitors to another page.

An administration official said the freeze remains in effect, so it's not clear why those 15 websites were created.

The official said that many of the websites the government hasn't eliminated are just automatic "redirects" that immediately send a user to another site.

"Redirects are a common best practice used when websites are being consolidated and a tactic to decrease the clutter of citizen-facing websites," the official said. "We are continuing work to consolidate domains while respecting appropriate records management requirements and focusing on our end objective of providing better services for the American people."

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