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7/20/2009
12:48 PM
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Online Transparency's Double-Edged Sword

The Obama administration will quickly find out that online transparency is a curse as well as a blessing, especially if the transparency is only half-baked.

The Obama administration will quickly find out that online transparency is a curse as well as a blessing, especially if the transparency is only half-baked.Agencies and contractors spending parts of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are required to submit details of their projects to deep online scrutiny on Recovery.gov. Over the weekend, the Drudge Report posted a number of pieces of spending that look questionable on first blush, such as the purchase of 760,000 pounds of ham for food shelters at almost double supermarket prices.

In one sense, this is somewhat embarrassing to the Obama administration, which has seen hit after hit from its political adversaries over rising deficits and the potential for waste in the stimulus package. In another sense, though, it's a case study in exactly how Recovery.gov was supposed to work, and of just how much work yet needs to be done.

Recovery.gov wasn't just designed to be a showcase of all the spectacular projects going on as part of the stimulus package. It was also placed there so that the public would sift through the data and question fishy spending, like the ham purchase or the $1.4 million spent on the repair of a door (no word on whether it was a hangar door, though a hangar door in Fort Worth cost only $347,000) at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

However, the small amount of information actually included in these early reports doesn't give the public full context on the contract awards, and that's something that should get fixed in the next version of Recovery.gov. It's not very hard for the contract recipients to provide a short written description of the work they performed, but the Department of Agriculture had to put out a press release to describe the ham purchase, since the full description on Recovery.gov described it only as "2 pounds ham sliced." Meanwhile, the government has given the Del Monte Corporation $9 million for three projects that are labeled as "undefined" on Recovery.gov.

The administration is stepping in to provide some more help to recipients scratching their heads about what they need to report and how. With recipients of funds stimulus funds obligated to begin reporting details of their spending in a few months, the Office of Management and Budget on Monday began a four-day series of Webcasts to educate the recipients about the act's transparency requirements.

The federal government is required to begin reporting on stimulus spending and other details, such as how many new jobs will be created as part of or because of the spending, by October. Recipients will send their reports to FederalReporting.gov, from which reports will be transformed and posted in a more usable form to Recovery.gov, the public-facing stimulus information site. However, the process isn't simple, and neither are the reporting requirements for agencies and contractors spending the money.

The Webcasts, hosted by OMB officials, began Monday morning with a general information session, and continue with six more sessions through Thursday, including an overview session on reporting requirements, reporting on jobs creation, the reporting process, overviews of the technology being used from the perspective of each major constituent (agencies, prime recipients and sub-recipients), and data quality requirements.

The sessions are being Webcast on WhiteHouse.gov, and PowerPoint presentations are being made available for download.

Recovery.gov is currently in the midst of a quick redesign being carried out by Smartronix and the General Services Administration, who plan to release a redacted copy of the contract for the redesign sometime this week. Also this week, Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board chairman Earl Devaney will send a status report on the progress of the stimulus to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It's unclear how much more description of the projects this new site will have, but clearly, more would be better.

Whatever the case, we'll be keeping an eye on IT projects that show up on Recovery.gov, and letting you know when we see anything untoward.

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