A Problem-Plagued Watchdog, Recovery.gov Emblematic of Stimulus

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Although President Barack Obama pledged that taxpayers would be able to monitor “every dime” of the $787 billion dollar stimulus bill, a government website that is supposed to track the expenditures is off to a rocky start. Months after going live, Recovery.gov provides only sketchy information about government purchasing and is undergoing a rushed bidding process to be revamped. The problems that Recovery.gov faces are the central problems of the stimulus: The need to roll out projects quickly while meeting long-term goals and preventing taxpayer money from being wasted.

From the start, Recovery.gov was an ambitious project. Never before has the government sought to provide so much data about contracting in a single, user-friendly format. Moreover, the Obama administration is requiring that stimulus money be tracked not only to recipients like state agencies–which is normal practice for federal spending–but also to sub-recipients that could include individual contractors. Yet so far, Recovery.gov hasn’t delivered on that promise. It’s little more than a collection of press releases and general breakdowns of spending.

After taking considerable flak over the site, the Federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board issued a request for bids to revamp Recovery.gov on June 15th, requiring proposals to be submitted a mere 11 days later. Bypassing the typical “full and open competition” bidding process, the board limited bids to 59 pre-approved contractors “because of the speed with which we have to handle this particular procurement,” a spokesman told Federal News Radio. Whoever won the contract would have to roll out the new site in less than a month. On Tuesday, Federal News Radio reported that only two contractors actually submitted bids–far from an ideal level of competition.

“They are required to have open competition, but everyone pretty much knew that the incumbent vendor was going to get the contract,” says Tom Lee, a technology director at the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group that had considered submitting a bid of its own. “There’s just no way another organization could get up to speed quickly enough to get the work done.”

 

As with other elements of the stimulus, the government faces a Catch-22: Take longer to build the site and provide too little information too late, or create it fast but imperfectly. Clay Johnson, the director of Sunlight Labs, jokes that the initial Recovery.gov site “was built in two seconds” and says that “the probability of rolling out something good [by the end of August] is relatively low.”

Given those constraints, Sunlight has criticized the feds for not taking a more decentralized approach. All federal contracting data will first pass through a back-end site, federalreporting.gov, that Sunlight believes should be accessible to anyone. That would allow public interest groups to comb it for errors and more quickly post it in novel ways on their own websites.

Illustrating how far behind the curve the feds are, the similarly named Recovery.org, which is run by the for-profit Onvia, far outstrips Recovery.gov in the level of federal stimulus contracting information that it makes available. “We get brand recognition out of it” Onvia CIO Eric Gillespie told Greenbiz.com, explaining why the site offers the information for free. “It’s really a win-win for everyone.”

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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