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Stimulus board launches 'Extreme Makeover: Web Edition'

The Obama administration is soliciting suggestions from information technology professionals, vendors and members of the public who think that its economic stimulus-tracking Web site needs a makeover.

Beginning Monday, the team that administers the stimulus Web site Recovery.gov will host a weeklong forum -- conducted entirely on the Web -- to encourage participants to "submit ideas on website design, data collection, data warehousing, data analysis and visualization, waste, fraud, and abuse detection, and other topics that are key to achieving greater transparency and accountability," according to organizers.

The "online dialogue" will be conducted on a message board manned around the clock by moderators from the National Academy for Public Administration, a nonpartisan advisory board charged with vetting proposed and existing government programs.

A spokeswoman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the newly formed stimulus oversight panel that shares responsibility for Recovery.gov with OMB and the General Services Administration, said the online discussion will be the first step in soliciting ideas for the structure of the Web site, which is intended to let taxpayers see how stimulus funds are being spent.

Users will be able to vote on proposals published on the site, she said, and experts from NAPA will vet the suggestions and invite the vendors and citizens with the top-rated recommendations to a technology exposition on an as-yet undetermined date.

In addition to an announcement on the Recovery Web portal, the event is being publicized through IT trade associations, the spokeswoman said.

Critics of the administration's transparency efforts grumbled that the weeklong public discussion might provide a feel-good sense of collaboration and transparency but would provide few practical solutions for the Web site's flaws.

"If we're going to have a roundtable, let's invite a core group of technology experts who can move the ball forward," said Michael Balsam, chief solutions officer at Onvia, the state and local procurement tracking company behind a rival stimulus Web site, Recovery.org. "If we have 10,000 people online, I'm not sure what that's going to accomplish."

But Alan Balutis, a fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and director of the business solutions group at Cisco Systems' global consulting arm, said that simply "rounding up the usual suspects" in the IT community is just as unproductive.

"People who are new to the issue bring interesting and different perspectives," he said, lauding the administration's open-forum approach. "Otherwise, you can fall into groupthink."

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// April 19