When he signed the $787 billion economic stimulus package in February, President Barack Obama promised Americans they would be able to track every dime at the government-run Web site Recovery.gov. But several months later, the site is largely incomplete and has been criticized as clunky and difficult to use.
Oniva, a Seattle-based business consultancy specializing in government contracts, has established a competing Web site—Recovery.org—that also tracks the federal spending.
Oniva created and maintains Recovery.org by using a data-gathering system that monitors the procurement spending of more than 89,000 federal, state, local, and educational entities. The company also monitors the media to keep track of public notices.
The privately run Recovery.org Web site provides three dropdown menus designed to allow visitors to look for spending information for stimulus projects on the state, county, and city level. The government site, by contrast, breaks down spending only on the state level, does not give many specifics, and is not as easy and intuitive to search.
Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Washington, DC-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said Recovery.gov’s shortcomings are yet “another unfortunate example of how the federal government has not yet grasped how to best make use of information technology.
“Government does not need to create the sexiest Web sites on the Internet, but it does need to make the right data available to ensure accountability and transparency,” Castro said. “If the federal government cannot provide this data in detail, then it raises legitimate questions about whether there is sufficient and appropriate oversight for these funds.”
Keeping Both Camps Honest
Some technology experts say having an independent entity track the funds alongside the government may help keep both camps honest.
“Private sites will always outperform public sites in disclosing government spending and waste,” said Daniel Ballon, a senior technology fellow for the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute. “This is the reason that the Founding Fathers created an independent press. Can you imagine if they had concluded that freedom of the press would not be necessary because the government could simply disclose all of its activities openly and transparently?”
“Recovery.gov is a token commitment to transparency [by the government] intended only for public relations purposes,” Ballon added. “Transparency is an important check on power, and no government ever seeks to limit or undermine its own power.
“If the government wants to add weight to its transparency claims, it should not worry about creating elaborate Web sites,” Ballon said. “Instead, it should make all data immediately available and let motivated citizens create the innovative sites that truly shine a light on government.”
Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.
For more information …
Oniva’s government spending monitoring Web site: http://www.recovery.org/