WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama promised taxpayers they could track each of the billions and billions of dollars in spending Congress has approved to stimulate the nation's flailing economy and save its banks. It's a promise that's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to keep.
Obama, whose presidential campaign harnessed technology to identify supporters and track voters, already has rewritten the rules on how technology can be used to shape public opinion. But as the president and his top aides attempt to turn that savvy into governing, they are finding that existing technology and regulations are making it difficult for them to keep their word.
"We're actually going to set up something called Recovery.gov. This is going to be a special Web site we set up, that gives you a report on where the money is going in your community, how it's being spent, how many jobs it's being created so that all of you can be the eyes and ears," Obama told an audience last week in Indiana.
"And if you see that a project is not working the way it's supposed to, you'll be able to get on that Web site and say, 'You know, I thought this was supposed to be going to school construction, but I haven't noticed any changes being made.' And that will help us track how this money is being spent."
Except that it didn't work exactly as Obama suggested when the Web site went live Tuesday as Obama signed the $787 billion economic stimulus package into law.
While the site breaks down the massive bill into broad categories, and provides state-by-state estimates of jobs that will be created, it does not provide any details on spending by community.
White House aides say they will provide more information as soon as they can, but they cannot predict which specific projects _ this bridge or that highway, for instance _ will be included, because states make those decisions.
The problem facing the administration is that it's impossible to put on the Web site decisions that have not yet been made.
"They're thinking the right way and moving the right direction," said Gary Bass, the founder of OMB Watch, which tracks federal spending. "But we won't be happy, nonetheless."
At least for now, there's no way to track spending down to the town level, as Obama promised, especially on statewide projects such as installing high-speed Internet lines to rural areas that don't have street addresses, let alone local governments.
"Some Recovery Act spending is intended to create or preserve jobs, some to build longer-term investments that will help stimulate the economy, and some to create short-term stimulus," according to the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, a network of watchdog groups that remain skeptical of the plan. "Whatever the purpose, there should be metrics that identify results."
Obama aides say they will post such information as they can, but they acknowledge it's not going to be announcing things at a micro level. Money for students in a metropolitan area, maybe; how one school district spent that money, no way.
Aides say the administration deserves credit for trying to take government transparency to new levels.
"This sort of effort is unprecedented, in trying to create an online platform for everyone to get information," said Macon Phillips, the White House director of new media. "This URL represents a much larger effort within government."
The administration also has promised that the public will be able to track how the separate, $700 billion bank bailout fund bill was spent, using a Treasury Department Web site _ financialstability.gov. But while more than half that money already has been disbursed, the site still contains no details of the spending, just press releases, a fact sheet and a video of a speech by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
The White House has a goal of committing 75 percent of the economic stimulus package within the first three months, and spending three-quarters of it within 18 months. If successful, that will create a massive infusion of cash into the struggling economy, and result in paperwork flooding back to the administration. That paperwork, from thousands of projects across the country, will have to be sorted and assembled onto the Web site, no small task even if the reporting is uniform.
"I think what we want is a comprehensive, national data collection and dissemination approach. But what we really need is not simply how much money is being spent, but we need to be having information about the results the money generates," Bass said. "What are the wages of workers getting those jobs? Who are those people getting those jobs? In other words, we need a new data stream so we can hold our government accountable."
Administration economists have calculated state-by-state estimates of the effects of the stimulus package, but they remain extrapolations based on the president's broad goals for the plan. The White House recalculated those numbers based on the final legislation and posted them online Tuesday.
"There's not a prior model for this so we are starting with our end goal of providing information as quickly and specifically as we possibly can and working backwards from there," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Watchdogs such as Bass acknowledge the limits: "There is no current data stream, there is no reporting system in place today for the kind of results data that we're looking for."
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