Jun 23 2009

Murky Transparency

Remember the adage, “Do you want it fast, or do you want it right?” That saying is playing out in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus program.

On the one hand is the federal government’s rush to get money into the hands of state and local governments and qualifying nonprofits to jump-start our sagging economy with more than $787 billion of the public funds, all the while tracking its progress.

On the other hand is the follow-through to President Obama’s pledge that the entire process will be carried out in full view of the public. Citizens should be able to track how much is being spent, where it is going and what it is funding. These are among the metrics the federal government says can and will be measured.

The center of all this activity is the dedicated website for ARRA, Recovery.gov. Recently, the site has experienced some setbacks with its content and the quality of the “transparency” it is providing, to the point that the oversight agency for the stimulus program, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, confirmed it was planning to issue a request for proposal seeking an IT vendor to redesign the site.

What do these issues with the Recovery.gov website have to do with administering the overall stimulus program? It’s symptomatic of the many technical and programmatic challenges to staging an open and transparent public-engagement program around the largest publicly funded federal spending program in U.S. history.

Two key challenges exist:

  1. Data: Who is responsible for reporting data, what and how are they going to report, and how will that be made available to the public?
  2. Technology: Besides the novel approach of using the Internet to engage citizens and stakeholders, what technology can be used to help state and local governments track and report progress and facilitate the role of citizens as overseers or as contributors to public policy-making?

Solving the first challenge will require some federal direction, but it will be up to the states and localities to devise consistent and uniform tracking and reporting methods that enable data analysis. Vendors have stepped up to offer packaged software to support state and local administration efforts. However, there is no obligation or direction on which solution or platform to use.

Governments haven’t indicated how they plan to address citizen participation, other than by posting data to their websites. Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist echoed the current policy of most (if not all) other governments when he pledged to provide citizens with a “window” so they can view their government’s management of stimulus funds. This isn’t surprising, because governments and citizens are still trying to find meaningful ways to connect to each other online.

Herein lays a fundamental question about using technology to ensure transparency and accountability in the arena of public policy-making, regardless of an initiative’s size and scope. Will the final output of the data offer real and measurable results of programs’ cost-benefit analysis? Are citizens satisfied to be merely spectators, or do they seek a seat at the table as active participants?

I expect the answers will unfold as more technology solutions and strategies emerge and as the public begins to play a larger role in the program. Keep an eye on Recovery.gov.