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Would-be Recovery.gov designers face moving target

Web-design firms bidding on a contract to revamp the official stimulus-tracking site Recovery.gov face the challenge of building a prototype that must comply with unpredictable content requirements, according to procurement specialists and information access academics.

"There is a big question about how the front end of Recovery.gov actually connects to a back-end reporting infrastructure," said Eric Kansa, executive director of the information and service design program at the University of California-Berkeley School of Information.

In October, agencies will be required to start transmitting reports from stimulus fund recipients to Recovery.gov, which is maintained by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. But the details of what will go into those reports and the technologies that will dispatch information have not been finalized.

A request for proposals for the Recovery.gov redesign obtained by Nextgov acknowledges that Obama administration guidance on reporting requirements will expand. "Flexibility will be required [of contractors]. I think that's a good thing," Kansa said.

"While emphasis is on meeting the reporting requirements specified by [the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the board] and its contractors understand that guidance from the Office of Management and Budget on reporting and transparency will continue to evolve," the RFP stated.

For instance, April 3 OMB guidance noted the government can require agencies to collect information from subawardees. "The reporting frequency and detail may change," it said. "Agencies should begin exploring the accounting and process changes required to update obligations and gross outlays more frequently."

Meanwhile, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, the board is fine-tuning an EPA-based software package that agencies will use to report spending data to Recovery.gov. Proposed redesigns must be able to accept data transactions from the forthcoming application in the formats OMB prescribes.

"This is good and true, and may explain why some parts of the RFP are under-specified, since things are still in flux," Kansa said. He wants to see more explicit technical requirements, such as a stipulation that data be released in open, nonproprietary formats and be made available for bulk download. This would enable outside programmers, nonprofits and companies to analyze the information to provide the public with more tailored visual presentations, observers said.

The RFP tries to satisfy open government advocates by recognizing the public's preferences could change.

"Public expectations of openness and transparency, coupled with explosive advances in technology and multichannel communications mean that standards that may have fully met the public's expectations yesterday, may fall well short tomorrow," the solicitation stated. "The offeror shall provide the government a process to add functionality to meet new paradigms, as they are defined."

Agencies, too, will have to be flexible in meeting the demands of the new site, said Stan Soloway, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council, a contractor trade group. The costs of changing the rules in the middle of the game are unknown, he added.

"The unavoidable reality is that we are going to be changing practices even as the stimulus work is going forward," Soloway said. "The answer I don't have is [whether this] is a cost-effective way of doing it."

Some businesses that might have the answers could be barred from bidding on the contract. According to the presolicitation notice, only 59 firms that participate in the governmentwide Alliant information technology contract program can compete.

This spring, during a board-sponsored online dialogue on how to improve Recovery.gov, "many small, very capable tech companies with fresh ideas contributed . . . but unless they can figure what doors of the Alliant contractors to knock on, their potential contributions may not see the light of day," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president at FedSources, a government market analysis firm.

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