Recovering Recovery.gov

Officials grapple with redesign of the federal go-to Web site on stimulus spending.

Since his election campaign, President Obama has been praised for his efforts to connect with Americans and organize supporters using the Internet. He has gone online regularly to reach out to the public and build support for his policies. But there's a big difference between answering questions in an online town hall and delivering transparency via meaningful government data on the Internet.

Obama has recognized the importance of the latter since his days in the Senate, but his record of following through on his promises remains mixed.

Open government advocates such as OMB Watch have noted the administration has yet to release much new information that wasn't previously available online.

The government has published data on federal contracts for years but still does not provide information on individual task orders, and Obama officials have not indicated any intention to do so in the near future. Agencies also are required to provide data to OMB on any grants in excess of $25,000, but that information still is not readily available online.

Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at the McLean, Va., consulting firm FedSources, says much of the data now available on Data.gov and Recovery .gov is not new for anyone familiar with federal databases.

Instead, the sites have become clearinghouses for information that agencies already publish on their own Web sites. Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra has promised Data.gov will include more than 100,000 data feeds on a variety of topics this summer, but where that data will come from remains a mystery. Most agencies maintain databases that could be of interest to the public, but making those databases available and easily digestible is sure to prove a challenge.

Now the administration has plunged forward with its most ambitious Web project to date, redesigning Recovery.gov, the Web site intended to track projects funded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Those projects, going on in communities across the nation, range from renovating the central railroad station in Wilmington, Del., to resurfacing highways and refurbishing federal buildings in various states. The Web effort is aimed at responding to criticism that the site had been outstripped by private sector counterparts tracking stimulus spending.

"A lot of the information [on Recovery.gov] is difficult to digest and put together in an aggregated way," says Bjorklund. For instance, the site provides graphs showing the percentage of stimulus dollars an agency has spent and details on some projects, including how much they cost. But the list of projects is incomplete and there is no easy way to tell exactly how an agency is spending all its stimulus funds.

On July 8, the General Services Administration, working on behalf of the Recovery Board, awarded a contract to redesign Recovery.gov to Smartronix, based in Hollywood, Md. The contractor is to complete the project by the Oct. 10 deadline set for agencies to file their first complete spending reports. That gives Smartronix 90 days to deliver what Recovery Board officials have promised will be a dynamic and comprehensive site that will include tools to track and visualize every dollar in stimulus funds.

"It's going to shift from an inside-the-Beltway Web site to something that people from throughout the country can use to find out what's going on in their neighborhood," says Recovery Board spokesman Ed Pound.

The concept is one that most can support, though the limited time frame might give pause to anyone familiar with federal contracting. Kundra has repeatedly said Recovery.gov is going to be the test case for the administration's approach to achieving government transparency online. Because the Recovery Board has limited IT acquisition experience, GSA is handling the contract management duties for Recovery.gov and is taking an unusually hands-on approach to oversight. Whether that will be enough to ensure the site's success is anybody's guess.

The White House is hoping to glean lessons from the president's first foray into the online transparency arena, USASpending.gov. When he was a senator, Obama teamed with Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn to sponsor the 2006 Federal Accountability and Transparency Act, which required OMB to maintain a Web site disclosing all organizations receiving more than $25,000 in federal funds. The site now houses one of the largest public databases of federal contracting information, but problems with the timeliness and formatting of the data from agencies have hampered its effectiveness. OMB was not able to comply with the law's mandate to report on grant and subgrant recipients, because of insufficient data agencies submitted. Recovery Board officials have said Recovery.gov must contain such information.

Transparency advocates such as the Sunlight Foundation also have criticized USASpending.gov for not including raw contracting data in machine-readable formats, such as XML, so it can be searchable and easily organized. In response, the Recovery Board promised to publish the raw data it collects in machine-readable format, with the onus on grant recipients to ensure the data submitted is correct. OMB is collecting the stimulus data that will appear on USASpending.gov and Recovery.gov, and has made XML an optional format.

Assuming the Office of Management and Budget can get agencies to provide the missing grants data, another question is how Recovery.gov will differ from USASpending, which already is publishing contracting data on stimulus spending projects. In late June, Kundra unveiled USASpending's new IT Spending Dashboard, which allows the public to view an agency's IT budget and see at a glance how many projects are behind schedule or exceeding cost estimates. The Recovery Board's Pound says his organization has more ambitious plans for its site.

"USASpending is mostly contracts," he says. "Here's what we're trying to do: We want the American public to be able to dig deep on this thing. We're going to have a mapping component that I think is going to be very good. We're not there yet, but we're trying to get there. . . . The board's view on this [is] they want this to be something really transparent with accountability there, so people can get in and see what's going on in their communities."

Behind the scenes, sources at OMB have said the Recovery Board has struggled with the extensive technical requirements involved in such an undertaking. In addition, Republican lawmakers criticized the board for the size of the contract awarded to Smartronix, which could reach $18 million if all the options are exercised. Another sore spot was the fact GSA limited the competition to only vendors on GSA's Alliant contract.

"What we want is to make this process more open to people," said Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation. "There's lots of good technology not offered by these 59 companies [on Alliant] that does not reach the government, even though it's cheaper, better and faster."

An OMB official who asked not to be named called the project "extremely high risk," adding that a board comprising former auditors might not be the ideal choice to lead such an extensive IT program.

With the October deadline looming, all eyes will be on GSA and Smartronix to see if they can deliver the site in time. If successful, the redesign could unleash a plethora of information on where stimulus dollars are going, how they are used, and how many jobs have been created or saved. But no matter how officials go about it, the project will be a tall order.

Aliya Sternstein and Robert Brodsky contributed to this report.

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