“Twitter users are overwhelmingly young. However, unlike the majority of other applications with a similarly large percentage of youth, Twitter use is not dominated by the youngest of young adults. Indeed, the median age of a Twitter user is 31. In comparison, the median age of a MySpace user is 27, Facebook user is 26 and LinkedIn user is 40.7”—Pew Internet & American Life Project: Twitter and status updating
Yesterday I wrote about some of the questions left open at the launch of Recovery.gov. Today some of these questions are answered in a memo issued by OMB to all agency heads, giving guidance on implementing the Recover Act (PDF). Among other things, the memo lays out their obligations regarding accountability and transparency.
First, I asked yesterday whether the Recovery.gov site being run out of the White House is in fact the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board website mandated by the Act. The answer seems to be that it is. Everything in today’s OMB memo points to Recovery.gov being treated as the one and only site to comply with the Act’s requirements. I’m not sure this poses a problem for transparency, but we need to be clear that Recovery.gov is not in the Board’s control per se as the Act seems to mandate.
More importantly, however, I asked yesterday how deep reporting would go, and whether reports from stimulus money grantees would be standardized and centrally housed. I wrote:
The problem is that a federal grant could be $10 million to Miami from DoT for roads, and that’s it. There is no requirement that the city then publish its contractors and subcontractors on the Board site. This is a big gap; if the only that must be disclosed on the Board site is the contract or grant award, then the trail will run cold very quickly.
Well, today the OMB helpfully answers me directly:
Reporting requirements only apply to the prime non-Federal recipients of Federal funding, and the subawards (i.e., subgrants, subcontracts, etc.) made by these prime recipients. They do not require each subsequent subrecipient to also report. For instance, a grant could be given from the Federal government to State A, which then gives a subgrant to
City B (within State A), which hires a contractor to construct a bridge, which then hires a subcontractor to supply the concrete. In this case, State A is the prime recipient, and would be required to report the subgrant to City B. However, City B does not have any specific reporting obligations, nor does the contractor or subcontractor for the purposes of reporting for the Recovery.gov website. All recipients of Federal funds must continue to comply with existing agency and program reporting requirements.
Like I said yesterday, this gap is a real problem. If one of the things we mean by “accountability” is allowing citizens to help fend of waste, fraud, and abuse, then we must know exactly where the money is going and for what. We need to know more than the fact that New Jersey made a sub-grant to Newark for neighborhood improvement. We need to know whether Newark paid Barone Sanitation and how much.
The upside is that the Recovery Act nevertheless requires grant recipients to report to their sponsoring agency “Detailed information on any subcontracts or subgrants awarded by the recipient[.]” I certainly hope that those reports will be thorough, and that the agencies will publish them in an easy-to-use format. Though I may be reading to much into it, it seems OMB is thinking along the same lines, stating in the memo, “OMB is actively pursuing options for collecting some of this information centrally, focusing first on [subgrant and subcontract information] in the standard formats currently used by Federal agencies to report to USASpending.gov.”
In the not so good news column, detailed project reporting by grantees may not be standardized or centrally housed at Recovery.gov, but scattered in dozens of agency sites in whatever format the grantees submit. Quoth the memo: “OMB is also actively considering how to centralize the collection and reporting of [detailed reporting on projects], though the current preference is that, to the extent possible, this data should be collected and reported through existing program level systems.”
The bottom line is we have no idea right now what Recovery.gov will ultimately look like, and how deeply the promised transparency will go. This reflects the rushed nature of the stimulus plan, as well as the inadequacy of existing federal IT systems. Unfortunately, this means that third parties like Stimulus Watch don’t know what sorts of tools they will be able to build to help citizens hold their government accountable, as the president says he wants them to do.
Sunlight Foundation president Ellen Miller blogged yesterday that “For the site to be successful it has to get the fundamentals right — transparency for the data it will house.” I think she’s absolutely right, but in addition to that we have to make sure that the data housed on Recovery.gov will be of value. Transparency is only a means to an end, and that end is accountability. By this standard, transparency about press releases, presidential YouTube videos, and estimates of how many jobs the recovery plan is creating, is no transparency at all.
The much anticipated site Recovery.gov has just been launched. It has been advertised by the administration as the place where stimulus spending will be completely disclosed to the public. As President Obama says in an introductory video on the home page, “once the money starts to go out to build new roads, modernize schools, and create new jobs, you’ll be able to see how, when and where it is spent” on the web site.
Reading the transparency and accountability portion of the stimulus bill today, however, I’m left with a few questions:
The House bill called for the creation of a site to be called Recovery.gov, but that was stripped out from the final legislation. Instead, the Act calls for the independent Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to create a website to house stimulus-related disclosures. Is the newly launched Recovery.gov that website? If so, is it indeed under the control of the independent Board? Right now the site’s content is certainly not independent of the president. If Recovery.gov is not the same thing as the legislatively created Board website, then won’t the launch of Recovery.gov serve to confuse citizens?
I don’t see any mandate in the legislation for deep reporting of how stimulus funding is spent. The Act requires fund recipients to report on a quarterly basis to the agencies from which they received funds (HUD, DoT, DoE, etc.) how they have spent the funds. Thirty days after receiving these reports, the Act requires agencies to publish not necessarily the recipient reports themselves, but “the information submitted in reports” publicly available on “a website.” That is, not necessarily on Recovery.gov or the board website (if they are separate sites).
Can we be assured that the full text of all recipient reports will be published? And can we be assured that they won’t be scattered across dozens of sites, but placed in a central and easy to access place?
Finally, how deep will the data go? The Board website mandated in the Act only requires the publication of “detailed information on Federal Government contracts and grants that expend covered funds” in the same fashion that USASpending.gov now employs. (Emphasis added.) The problem is that a federal grant could be $10 million to Miami from DoT for roads, and that’s it. There is no requirement that the city then publish its contractors and subcontractors on the Board site. This is a big gap; if the only that must be disclosed on the Board site is the contract or grant award, then the trail will run cold very quickly.
That said, there is a requirement for contractor and subcontractor reporting, but it comes in the recipient report mandate I explained in question 2, and like I said, there is no guarantee that we will get the full report data, nor that it will be centrally housed. Can we get that assurance?
As Recovery.gov and any other official stimulus accountability sites come on line, StimulusWatch.org and other will be looking to make the data useful to citizens. We can only do this, however, if the administration keeps its pledge to be transparent. Mr. President, just give us the data.
Great article in Wired recounting all the obstacles in the way of President Obama keeping his promises on online transparency—not the least of which is the lack of any real will on his part: “In other words, with everything he’s done so far, Obama has been acknowledging feedback but not necessarily heeding it.”
“I have some good friends who would probably, if asked how to implement Jerry Brito’s idea, would suggest we call the guy who runs the internet and ask him if he could do that. If this idea would have fallen into institutional hands, I’m sure a three year mega-million project would have ensued, most probably based on sharepoint.”—Yishay Mor. Amen.
My new favorite band of all time coming to Baltimore 26 April. Swiss, they are crazy about their work ethic. From their official biography:
[G]uitarist Olavi Mikkonen confirms: “We nailed down all ideas we had from the past year and we rehearsed 5 days a week, 9 to 5 [which is fucking huge considering they are Europeans]. At the end of the month we had finished a 5 song demo.” After a two-month break, the band returned to write the rest of the material: “We started up where we had left off and began working on all new ideas we had. Again 5 days a week, 9 to 5. This time around we had 4 new songs and the album was written. We had never written an album under these intense circumstances, but we found out that this was totally right for us.” The new masterpiece “With Oden On Our Side” was born.
Today Pete, Kevin, and I officially launched Stimulus Watch. The response has been great. We’ve gotten a ton of traffic and some great attention, and we’re very grateful for your help with that. We plan to keep adding features, so stay tuned and keep spreading the word. Here are some highlights from the tubes:
Witness the majesty of the internet: Less than two months ago I blogged on this site about an idea to build a website to crowdsource the task of rating the slew of “shovel ready” projects proposed by localities. I asked for volunteers to help develop the site, and to my amazement, it worked. With the help of all-around heroes Peter Snyder and Kevin Dwyer, today we launch StimulusWatch.org.
Stimulus Watch looks at the 10,000+ projects listed in the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ “MainStreet Economic Recovery Report.” The mayors and local officials around the country have asked that these projects be funded with federal money. Here are some of the proposed projects of interest to readers of this blog:
Once the stimulus bill passes, however, not every project will be funded. The agencies that administer the federal grant-making programs, which Congress will fund through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will have to decide which of these projects to fund.
While these funding decisions are largely made by formula, the Obama administration has promised to be smart about which projects it funds with stimulus money. In his address on economic recovery on January 8, President Obama said:
We have to make tough choices and smart investments today so that as the economy recovers, the deficit starts to come down. We cannot have a solid recovery if our people and our businesses don’t have confidence that we’re getting our fiscal house in order. That’s why our goal is not to create a slew of new government programs, but a foundation for long-term economic growth.
That also means an economic recovery plan that is free from earmarks and pet projects. I understand that every member of Congress has ideas on how to spend money. Many of these projects are worthy, and benefit local communities. But this emergency legislation must not be the vehicle for those aspirations. This must be a time when leaders in both parties put the urgent needs of our nation above our own narrow interests.
Stimulus Watch exist to help the President keep his pledge. Citizens around the country can judge for themselves the merits of the mayors’ proposed projects. Using this site they can voice their opinions and local knowledge of the projects letting everyone know which are worth an investment and which are not. Local government officials are also invited to join the conversation to give context for their requests.
We hope you enjoy the site, and we hope you will help us spread the word.