Transparently Impossible

The alliance between the open government community and the Recovery Board is showing signs of stress.

At first glance it seems open government advocates and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board should be getting along like old friends-a harmonization of forces working together toward a shared goal of public access and federal honesty. But six months after the creation of the RAT Board, this shotgun marriage is on the rocks.

Somewhere between the incredible expectations set for Recovery.gov, which is the central point for all stimulus spending, and the mixed results of the Web site to date, tension and mistrust have begun to build within a community that was shunned, disregarded and otherwise ignored during the past eight years. And some watchdogs are beginning to wonder whether the board has promised more than it can deliver.

"The trajectory is right, but the pace is too slow," says Craig Jennings, senior federal fiscal policy analyst with OMB Watch, which is a member of the stimulus watchdog group, Coalition for an Accountable Recovery. "They are headed in the right direction and they are saying the right things, but they are falling short in the actual implementation."

The disharmony ultimately boils down to time and priorities. Open government advocates suggest that all Recovery Act information-from contract summaries to raw, machine-readable data that can be downloaded onto a user's hard drive-should be made available to the public immediately. The coalition has also called for the posting of all Recovery Act contracts, but board officials say the labor needed to redact all private information could be overwhelming.

The board has pleaded repeatedly for patience, arguing that it needs time to build a new Web site capable of displaying hundreds of billions of dollars in government spending. As a place holder, in July the board introduced new search capability on the original Recovery.gov site, allowing users, for the first time, to track spending projects by state.

"They kind of want you to go from zero to 10 overnight," says board chairman Earl Devaney. "I think we are moving very quickly. I think we are moving the whole government in the direction of transparency. We will, perhaps, be building a platform that can be used forever."

In June, Smartronix Inc., a Hollywood, Md., technology firm, was selected to build Recovery.gov 2.0, a new and revamped Web site that Devaney expects will be capable of tracking virtually every dollar of spending. The new site, which has a price tag that could reach $18 million, will have all the bells and whistles popular in the open government community-from high-tech mapping to the ability to mash recovery spending with other data sources such as crime statistics or education funding. Citizens even will be able to download spending data onto their iPhones.

But the redesign contract only fueled the fire with transparency supporters when it took more than a month for the General Services Administration, which managed the award, to post a copy of the Smartronix contract. The furor was instantaneous and, in typical open government fashion, astoundingly viral.

Listservs, blogs and Twitter accounts devoted to transparency lit into the board for failing to meet its own standards of public openness. OMB Watch sent a letter to Devaney urging the release of the Smartronix contract as well as the contract with CGI Federal to create FederalReporting.gov, a site where recipients file their spending data. The latter contract has yet to be released.

The board and GSA appeared to be caught flat-footed by the controversy-which paled in comparison with the larger brouhaha about the contract price- and at times delivered contradictory responses. For example, Devaney suggested the contract would be released as soon as the protest period expired, but it took GSA several additional weeks to release a redacted copy. The frequent clashes have led to growing frustration in the open government community, not only with the board but with the Obama administration on the whole. Critics note that the president has failed to uphold some transparency promises he made on the campaign, such as requiring Cabinet officials to host national broadband town hall meetings and giving the public five days to review legislation before he signs it. The administration also has refused to release controversial photos of Guantanamo Bay terrorism detainees and logs of visitors to the White House.

"Right now we are seeing ambition running into reality and this is the case generally for some of the reform initiatives from Obama," says John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington group that promotes transparency in government. "They sound good in theory, but when you try to work it out it's more difficult. Philosophically and conceptually, they are very much on board with us, but working it out is difficult."

Part of the problem with Recovery transparency might be rooted in the structure of the board itself, which is staffed by a dozen inspectors general across government. While well-versed in holding agency officials accountable for misdeeds, IGs are not experts in the intricacies of government transparency. In fact, most operate away from the public spotlight and audits and investigations are kept as well-guarded secrets until they are released to the public.

Transparency leaders suggest they are working behind the scenes with the board, prodding officials to be more forthcoming about Recovery spending, particularly in terms of providing the public with raw and unfiltered data. "There are very high expectations about what they've promised and what our expectations were for creating accountability around this," Wonderlich says. "Open government advocates want to follow the stimulus spending in the way it was described by the administration. But when you go to specific contracts and grants and there is no description listed, that looks like the opposite of accountability."

While the two sides appear to be arguing like an old married couple, ultimately they need one another. The advanced technology and unique skill sets of transparency advocates make them ideally suited to meet Devaney's call for millions of "citizen IGs" to examine Recovery data for fraud and waste. Open government advocates understand that never before has so much government data been so readily available and obsessive complaining could come across as disregard for the practical realities of running a government bureaucracy.

"We are trying to balance the criticism because if it's too harsh it might not be heard, or could be perceived as anti-Obama and not just pro-transparency," Jennings says. "It's a delicate line to find."

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