How much does the United States Congress spend on technology and digital media?
It is a devilishly simple question, but I have yet to find a clear answer after nearly seven years working in and around the legislative branch. Finding the answer is a critical early step, however, in building an efficient, effective Congress that can fulfill its responsibilities in the 21st Century. That is something in which all Americans have a stake.
Does Congress spend the proper amount on technology? Is that money being spent on the correct technology products, vendors, and services? These are far more important questions that grow more pressing each day — constituent mail volume rose 548% between 2002-2010, while office resources to deal with it have been slashed 21% since 2011, according to the House Appropriations Committee.
This is the new normal. Yet without accurate spending information, you are stuck guessing as to the best way to deal with this new reality, whether you work on or off Capitol Hill. Moreover, those outside Congress who care about improving the legislative branch – as we do at The OpenGov Foundation – can only provide the right support at the right time to the right people in Congress if we know how and where to help.
Fortunately, groundbreaking work done by the Congressional Management Foundation, the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute, the Congressional Data Coalition, the Sunlight Foundation, and others has supplied some critical pieces of the puzzle. The following is inspired by them and their vital research. If you want to build off my work, you can find source data, crunched numbers, and methodology at the end of this post.
Right now, discussions are underway on and off Capitol Hill about what direction Congress should take with technology, data and staff. No one has the answer, but there are many amazing people in and around Congress working together towards one; it is my hope that this initial analysis will contribute to these efforts.
Why Is It Difficult to Find An Answer?
The challenge of finding accurate technology and digital media spending numbers is rooted in how the House and Senate, as well as support agencies like the Library of Congress, report their spending. The rules change year to year. The classifications of expenditures shift. Everything is paper-based. The PDF documents that could contain answers only come out well after the fact. And unlike the Executive Branch, you can’t simply file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain spending, staffing and procurement information.
Enter the Sunlight Foundation. Its staff has done yeoman’s work turning some of those problematic PDFs into more useful CSV files. But even with this transformation, Sunlight decided to include a Texas-sized disclaimer, which I think wise to add here as well:
“In the end, what we have here are numbers which are as close to the real ones as possible given the several hurdles created by…rules on how this information is reported and the manner in which the data is presented in non-machine readable PDF files.”
For the moment, this is the best data we have. So let’s dive in.
Initial Findings: The United States Senate
In 2014, the Senate spent at least $106,356,000 on technology- and digital media-related programs, purchases, and people, according to this data and analysis. Some context: $106,356,000 accounts for roughly 12 percent of the Senate’s total enacted FY2014 budget, and 2.5 percent of total legislative branch appropriations for that year. It is slightly more than the total Congressional Research Service budget, and slightly less than a third of Capitol Police appropriations. Does this significant allocation of resources yield satisfactory results? Are Members and staff — not to mention taxpayers — getting the best digital bang for their buck? Since we don’t currently have very granular Senate data, it’s extremely difficult to know.
So where and how did the Senate spend that $106+ million? At least $3,575,000 went to “externally-developed software,” which appears to be different a different category than the at least $5,035,000 that went to “purchased software.” That’s at least $8,610,000 on software in 2014 alone. That software needed at least $8,353,000 worth of “maintenance.” By far the three largest spending categories were tech- and digital media-related personnel ($40,228,000), “technical support” ($21,315,000), and “purchased equipment” ($17,586,000).
The Top Ten Payees (According to Available Data)
- General Dynamics — $24,012,000
- Bart and Associates — $4,009,000
- Macaulay Brown — $3,621,000
- Deloitte Consulting — $2,566,000
- Insight Public Sector — $2,299,000
- Desktop Solutions — $1,890,000
- Esna Technologies — $1,145,000
- SRA International — $1,095,000
- Hewlett Packard — $1,081,000
- EMC Corporation — $1,033,000
Staff Spending by Position Type (According to Available Data)
- Software and Systems Engineers — $6,770,000
- IT Directors and Managers — $5,042,000
- IT Analysts, Specialists, Etc. — $4,629,000
- Systems Administrators — $2,440,000
- Digital and New Media Staff — $1,396,000
It’s a start. Rough insight is better than no insight. But before we can draw conclusions or formulate recommendations, the data format, publishing procedures, and overall quality need to improve dramatically. We do not know, for example, exactly what the above-listed expenditures actually purchased. We cannot access the vendor contracts and procurement process. Without knowing things like that, it is next to impossible to assess the efficiency, effectiveness and value of the Senate’s spending on technology and digital media. But now we have some sort of a baseline. I hope it will, in some small way, contribute to the ongoing conversation about how to create a Congress that works to the best of its abilities on behalf of all Americans.
I invite you to dive into the data yourself to help unearth additional insights, correct inaccuracies or further clean up the information. All the source documents are linked below and posted on our Github page. I would love to discuss this data and initial analysis with you or hear about what else you’ve discovered. Find me on Twitter @SeamusKraft or drop me a line at Seamus@opengovfoundation.org.
Empowering and supporting those who serve in government is a lifelong mission of mine, and central to the soul of The OpenGov Foundation. Congressional staff and Members have some of the most important jobs in the United States. Every day, they face unbelievably complex challenges, work under unimaginable constraints, and do it all with virtually zero tolerance for error. They deserve our respect, and better resources to get the job done.
Given the challenging environment, these “islands of excellence” within Congress deserve to be recognized. A historic transformation of legislative data is underway. You can stream terabytes of committee hearing video anywhere with an Internet connection. Members and staff are embracing open source software. Earlier this year, twenty-three Senators and Congressman participated in #Hack4Congress. And later this month, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) will host the second Congressional Hackathon. All of this adds up to meaningful progress.
Everyone has a stake in creating an efficient, effective and accountable United States Congress. Accurately assessing how much and where the legislative branch spends taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars is a necessary step towards accomplishing that goal.
Senate Spending Source Data via The Sunlight Foundation
Technology-Specific Senate Spending Data for 2014 via The OpenGov Foundation
- All U.S. Senate Tech-Related Spending
- Externally-Developed Software
- Purchased Software
- Software Maintenance
- Technology Support
- Technology-Related Staff
To begin, I took the most recent full year of spending reports (2014) and created one massive spreadsheet. Due to fluctuating reporting periods, and to ensure as little as possible was missed, I went back to 2013 and ahead to 2015 to pull out 2014 expenditures, of which there were more than a few. For the Senate, where missing or garbled data produced no clear expenditure year, I went with the date the expenditure was posted. In order to separate technology-related spending from everything else, I then sorted the Senate’s spending information by what, or whom, received the money. All source data is linked to in this post.
Deciding What to Data to Include
While what one considers technology- and digital media-related spending can differ, due to the low-quality and low clarity of the data used for this analysis, I had to make some assumptions. After sorting everything into expenditure types, I eliminated everything that was clearly not related to technology or digital media. Staff that appeared to be working in technology or digital media-related positions were included.
Legislative branch support agencies, such as the Government Publishing Office and Library of Congress, are not included in this analysis. While they should be included in any legislative branch-wide technology, data and digital media discussions, support agency spending data is even harder to find and analyze than Congress’. As such, like the House’s spending, this must remain a project for a later date.