Day after stimulus-tracking site's debut, civic activists say transparency will depend on the accuracy of the spending data and how easily it can be made understandable.
The newly overhauled Recovery.gov represents progress in providing information on government spending, but the transparency of the $787 billion stimulus program will depend more on the accuracy of the data the White House posts on the Web site, said good government advocates and citizens.
The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board on Monday launched a reworked Web site to track stimulus spending. The facelift, which was conducted under a contract worth potentially $19 million, includes interactive maps that drill-down to show the location, cost and number of jobs created by individual projects at neighborhood levels.
But those closely following the initiative said the site's effectiveness might be limited by a lack of public interest in the program and what they say are the Office of Management and Budget's lax rules dictating how frequently and detailed the expenditures and jobs reports need to be.
"The good news is that it's got lots of detail. The bad news is that it's going to be hard for the average American to use," said Andrew Rasiej, New York-based founder of Personal Democracy Forum, a conference and Web site that monitors the confluence of politics and technology. "Other than watchdogs, contractors or Republicans looking to eviscerate the administration, I don't think anyone knows about this site."
Rasiej, who also co-founded the techPresident blog, sounded impressed during a phone interview as he used the site to zoom in on a map of awards granted to companies in his home state. Users can glide their cursors over a state to view the amount of funds agencies have said they plan to release, have set aside and paid out. They can click on the state to see brief summaries about the contracts, grants and loans that agencies have awarded.
But that information likely will go unnoticed by most people, according to Rasiej. "The American public, for the most part, has turned a deaf ear to most government information because it is not detailed enough or relevant to their lives," he said. "It's clear that the Obama administration is trying to change that dynamic."
Engaging the average American with the site will not happen overnight, he said. "You have to be a data geek to really want to understand this," Rasiej explained. "Whether it be civic activists, citizen journalists, watchdogs or professional journalists, this info will trickle out to the public in general and democracy will be better served because of it."
Calling the level of financial detail unprecedented, he noted that it is probably more significant that the federal government is attempting to share such information, rather than how granular it is.
Officials at the Seattle-based business intelligence firm Onvia, which created the unofficial stimulus-tracking site Recovery.org, also applauded the effort to open up government coffers. "This is kind of the next wave in the transparency movement, in general," and an extension of USASpending,gov, a database mandated by legislation that then-Sen. Barack Obama co-authored to make public all government contracts, said Eric Gillespie, chief information officer at Onvia.
But he acknowledged that Recovery.gov, like its predecessor, still has shortcomings, most notably a lack of source data. Reports from fund recipients on job creation, project scope and money spent will appear on the site in October and will be updated quarterly. Gillespie, as well as other open government groups, see flaws in the methodology for estimating the number of jobs created.
The administration gives stimulus recipients some leeway in reporting the number of jobs created by a contract or grant, by allowing them to determine how many hours an employee worked to be equivalent to a full-time job. Earlier requirements, now discarded, said recipients should follow the rule that $92,000 of government spending creates one job year. Recovery.org follows that latter rule to determine job figures.
Recovery.gov's value will depend on the spending reports, according to Gillespie. "I'm a data goon. For me, the maps are fun to look at and poke around in, but at the end of the day if you don't have the data it's not as appealing if you're doing analytics," he said. "What will be really cool is when you release data sets and you can mash it up with campaign contribution and census information."
The weaknesses of Recovery.gov stem more from the administration's reporting rules than the board's site, said Craig Jennings, senior fiscal policy analyst at OMB Watch, an open government group that co-chairs the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery. The White House should require recipients to report total hours worked to gauge job creation and collect performance metrics to assess whether recovery programs are meeting Congress' and Obama's expectations, he said.
"By and large, [Recovery.gov] 2.0 is very similar to [Recovery.gov] 1.0 in terms of content," Jennings said. He commended, however, the addition of a downloads page that allows other Web sites and programmers to save content to their own systems for repurposing.
A spokesman for California Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the redo is a step in the right direction, but judgment should be withheld until the White House populates it with data. "It appears they have a better infrastructure in place to support the information that will be coming online," said spokesman Kurt Bardella. "Utilizing it effectively is equally important," he added.
Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement, "Starting next month, this pioneering project will go even further with the posting of data directly from recipients showing how they have put recovery dollars to work on projects nationwide. I applaud the work of [the board] leveraging the latest technology to provide the public with more information about their taxpayer dollars at work than with any previous program in the history of our government."