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Foundation takes Recovery.gov makeover into its own hands

A government transparency group frustrated with what it calls a "crazy" and opaque procurement process for redesigning Recovery.gov has decided to bid on the project itself.

The government posted a pre-solicitation notice for the makeover of Recovery.gov on June 11, but has yet to post a formal request for proposals on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site despite original projections that it would be available as early as Monday.

The Sunlight Foundation, however, obtained and posted a version of the RFP and has started developing its bid.

"We're not in government contracting, but we're in transparency ... and it's crazy that the only place you can get this RFP" is on Sunlight's Web site, said Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs. The labs division is a team of Web developers who build applications to make government more accountable.

Even if Sunlight is not eligible, the organization still will bid on the project, Johnson said. That could require partnering with a qualified contractor. The foundation is opening up its bid for anyone to edit on a wiki, a Web page that allows users to add and alter content.

"The reason that we're doing this is so we can inject ourselves into the process and expose it to the public," Johnson said. "We'll be blogging about the whole thing. This Web site is supposed to serve the people, so let the people build it to their specifications."

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversees stimulus spending, is seeking a "Web design and implementation firm" to redo the site's visual display, user interface, engineering and other information services, according to a copy of the RFP Nextgov obtained from the General Services Administration on Wednesday.

Vendors will have until June 26 to write a proposal for a site that is to launch Aug. 27, according to the RFP. "Ability to move with speed and efficiency is critical," the document states.

"This is a really big deal for us. We don't know what government contracting is like," said Johnson, who decided Tuesday that Sunlight would bid on the project. "If we partner with one of the [eligible contractors], they will need to be as transparent as we're being."

To be fair, the government did try to involve citizens in the contract-making process. This spring, the recovery board held an online dialogue with the public to generate ideas for improving the site, which is responsible for providing citizens with data and visual presentations of funds disbursed under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Afterward, the nonprofit National Academy of Public Administration, which hosted the online discussion, gave the board a report on the success of the collaboration. The board released the report to the public on Monday night.

"Despite the relatively specialized nature of the topic at the center of this dialogue, the effort ultimately activated a network of over 22,000 unique participants over the course of one week, with relatively little lead time," the report concluded. "The geographic diversity of site traffic indicates that this initiative was able to reach beyond the known government and IT vendor communities. Within all 50 states, visits were spread broadly across urban, suburban and rural centers, indicating that the initiative reached not only those who have input into the future of Recovery.gov, but those who will ultimately rely on it for information about projects that affect their own economic well-being."

Beyond commissioning the report, board staff participated in the dialogue and analyzed the submissions. Some of the top ideas included geographical mapping and open formats, such as the Web standard Extensible Markup Language (XML). Among the overarching themes were information syntax and collaboration, according to the board.

"While there were no major IT solutions, there were some good ideas and we're using some of those ideas," board spokesman Ed Pound said, adding that some of the approaches are reflected in the RFP and some will be incorporated into a third upgrade.

On Tuesday, some open government advocates voiced concerns about a lack of transparency during the solicitation-drafting process.

The top ideas the board flagged are "a step in the right direction" but "how did they get there, I don't know," said Gary Bass, executive director of the nonprofit oversight organization OMB Watch and a member of the steering committee for the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery.

But government vendors cautioned there can be drawbacks to collaborative contract-writing.

"Macro-collaboration can lead to a system that tries to be all things to all people," said Larry Allen, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, a trade group for federal contractors. "Too many masters often means significant delays in program implementation, increased costs and a system that no one is happy with."

Bass said he had assumed the board would have asked a contractor to manage both the site and software for the incoming flow of spending data. Agencies are required to begin reporting data from stimulus fund recipients to Recovery.gov in October.

"You have to design your pretty Web site around your data too," he said.

But the contractor will not be responsible for the capture of recipient data, according to the RFP.

"They are two separate things," Pound said. "One has to do with designing what something looks like. The other has to do with receiving the data and then reporting it."

Keeping those two tasks separate is "like shopping for ingredients for a recipe without knowing the recipe," Bass said.

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