Web Site Allows Public Input on Mayors’ Stimulus Wish List

Published April 1, 2009

Late last year, as the economic stimulus package began to take shape, some in Congress fretted there were not enough government projects on which to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars they were preparing to appropriate.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors did its part to allay those fears by preparing a list of more than 10,000 “shovel-ready” projects for which its members would happily take federal funds. Today you can view, vote, and comment on every one of those projects at the new StimulusWatch.org Web site.

The mayors’ “MainStreet Economic Recovery Report” is a massive wish list that includes everything from school renovation and bridge repair to dog park construction and golf course remodeling. The breadth of the report presents a challenge to President Barack Obama, who has pledged to ensure stimulus money is not wasted and is instead invested wisely.

“What we need to do is examine what are the projects where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck [and] how are we going to make sure taxpayers are protected,” Obama has said. “You know, the days of just pork coming out of Congress as a strategy, those days are over.”

Transparency in Requests

Quite laudably, the mayors were completely transparent about their requests, publishing their 344-page report on their Web site.

My colleague Eileen Norcross brought the report to my attention, suggesting it was an opportunity to test my research on using the Internet to increase transparency and accountability. Our idea was simple: Put every one of the proposed projects online in a way that allowed citizens to find, and add information to, their local projects.

I have a background in Web design but had never tackled a project like this. So I blogged about our idea and asked for help. To my delight, several software developers, including Peter Snyder and Kevin Dwyer, wrote in and volunteered their time.

Working nights and weekends, and communicating over email and chat, we built StimulusWatch.org over the course of a month.

Easy Search Features

On the site, users are asked to find projects that interest them or about which they have special knowledge. They can find projects through a search or by browsing by state and city. Once a user finds a program, there are three things he or she can do:

(1) vote on whether the project is critical;

(2) edit the project’s description to add factual information; and

(3) discuss and debate the project with other users.

We have effectively “crowdsourced” the task of separating the wheat from the chaff to help the president keep his pledge.

Additionally, the site has successfully captured the local knowledge of individuals on hundreds of projects across the country and engaged many more in thoughtful discussion and debate.

Jerry Brito ([email protected]) is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.