As the President prepares to sign the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in Denver tomorrow, the geeks among us (you know who you are!) are eagerly awaiting the launch of Recovery.gov -- the online home of ARRA that will, according to a weekly presidential address in January, allow "every American...to see how and where we spend taxpayer dollars."
Accountability is the stated goal, but notice the language there: Every American can see how the ARRA money is spent. Well, that's fine, but what happens if a citizen doesn't like something they see? This is a non-trivial question, because it gets to the key question of exactly how the Obama administration will define "accountability"? While there's no question that breaking down multi-hundred-page legislation into a comprehensible format is a valuable public service, it still keeps the citizen at the end of the process, letting them witness the results of government deliberations but not actually inform them.
This is important because Recovery.gov isn't the only game in town. Meet Stimulus Watch, a site that compiles individual stimulus projects on a wiki-based site and asks users to comment on them and rate them in terms of perceived importance. Could this kind of model ever be incorporated directly into government?
There are some difficulties. First of all, the site doesn't mirror ARRA exactly: As the site's authors acknowledge, it is based on a list of shovel-ready projects issued by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the projects don't really align with how funding is allocated in the actual stimulus bill. More broadly, there's the question of whether you want this kind of thing "crowdsourced": There's a matter of fact about how many jobs a given project will create, regardless of how many votes it gets. Do we really want the crowd that kept Sanjaya on American Idol for two months determining federal infrastructure spending?
But one thing that Recovery.gov could incorporate is the wiki functionality that lets folks on the ground add their own knowledge about how projects are going. Think the workers on that highway repaving job are taking super-sized lunch breaks? Know a better way to educate folks in your community about the relief they may be entitled to? Let government know! $787 billion is a lot of money, and enlisting citizens in keeping track of it all would be a good first step in bridging the gap from merely transparent government to actual participatory government.