The launch of Recovery.gov as an accountability tool for the public exhibits the spirit of President Obama's promise to use the Internet to connect citizens with vital government information, particularly in the case of the $787 billion stimulus bill. What must be noted first is that Recovery.gov marks a crucial moment in the government's use of the Web to provide transparency and accountability. As the Sunlight Foundation's John Wonderlich wrote, "The Internet has been recognized as having a central - even fundamental - role in enabling oversight and public access." Without this public expectation, there would be no discussion of the merits of the transparency on the actual site.
Overall, Recovery.gov provides a good beginning, but we'll have to see how it rolls out the information once it becomes available. At this point, the myriad contracts have not been signed and the money is only beginning to flow out. Thus, we aren't provided with the "maps, charts, and graphics" the site ensures they will create out of the data collected. When the contracts are signed there are a few important steps that the administration can take to truly fulfill their commitment to transparency.
1) All data must be available in raw format. While Recovery.gov aims to be an innovative tool on the Web, the true innovation occurs with the many developers outside of government. By providing all stimulus-related data, from all relevant agencies, in .XML, or similar formats, developers can create and remix the data to build better tools. There is currently a statement on Recovery.gov addressing this concern, "as new systems are developed to capture the allocations and expenditures under the Act, we plan to make that data available in exportable form."
2) All contracts must be posted in full, even if in PDF format. Currently, only summaries of contracts will become available as evidenced by a memo sent out to federal agencies from Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orzag. The OMB memo orders agencies to submit a summary of all stimulus-related contracts or orders worth more than $500,000 to be linked to on Recovery.gov. The memo also orders agencies to submit all stimulus-related contract documents - pre-solicitations, award notices - for public consumption. Actual contract documents, rather than summaries, would provide the public with far more information, and allow for greater accountability.
In looking at Recovery.gov, we also have to look at the limitations created by the disclosure systems already in place in government. For instance, some of the contracts will not be made available through Recovery.gov. Specifically, the money provided to state and local governments, in some cases, allows those governments to contract out the money on their own terms. Seeing as how these aren't federal contracts it is difficult to find a reporting schema that would provide the federal government with the contract information of state and local governments. It would be akin to putting a square shape through a triangular hole. There are many other instances where transparency has to be scaled back to meet the disclosure systems and infrastructure currently in place in the federal government.
It will take a few weeks, and in some cases months, to be able to fully assess Recovery.gov. Luckily for us, the web site provides a time line of when information is supposed to become available.