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Two Years Later: Recovery.gov Still Sucks At Public Engagement

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, February 28 2011

Two years ago, Barack Obama promised the public that he was going to run government in a more transparent and interactive way. Indeed, at public rallies meant to build public support for the signature initiative of his fledgling administration, the $787 billion "Economic Recovery" stimulus spending program, he told audiences that he would "enlist all of you" to help watchdog the spending. The centerpiece was going to a new dynamic and interactive website, Recovery.gov:

As soon as this plan is signed into law, Recovery.gov goes live and you’ll be able to see precisely where your tax dollars are going. Because this is your democracy, and as I said throughout the campaign, change never begins from the top down. It begins from the bottom up.

On February 9, 2009, selling his recovery plan at a town-hall meeting in economically devastated Elkhart, Indiana, he went further in explaining his vision for using the social web to involve the public in the watch-dogging of
government spending:

We’re actually going to set up something called Recovery.gov —this is going to be a special website 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 created so that all of you can be the eyes and ears. And if you see that a project is not working the way it’s supposed to, you’ll be able to get on that website 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. . . . The key is that we’re going to have strong oversight and strong transparency to make sure this money isn’t being wasted.

“I’ll enlist all of you.” “You can be the eyes and ears.” These sounded like the words of someone who clearly understood the power and wisdom of a crowd, and the axiom that all of us are smarter than any one of us.

Meet the New Boss...
But here’s what actually happened with Recovery.gov. According to a White House insider, during the transition planning, Obama was indeed shown a mock-up of an interactive site that would allow citizens to track all federal spending, not just the stimulus. But that vision was whittled down rather quickly, hobbled by a board made of up of the various agency Inspectors General, all of whom come from the old-school way of doing things. The "clay layer" of government bureaucracy, through which no light travels, was in charge.

At first, Earl Devaney, a former Secret Service agent who was appointed as the inspector general to run the stimulus program’s Recovery and Transparency Accountability Board, seemed to embrace Obama's stated vision. He promised that the site would invite Americans to be “citizens inspectors general,” helping track whether the money was indeed being used properly. “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors general],” Devaney said in August 2009. “After getting a taste of this, people will not want to go back to the old ways,” he said.

No such thing has happened. First of all, the Recovery.gov site doesn’t really engage the public as “eyes and ears” apart from offering a way for people to report fraud, waste, or abuse via a standard electronic complaint form. In other words, all the real information processing about possible problems with government spending is hidden from the public; people have no way of seeing each other’s complaints or tracking whether something has been addressed. This isn't "Yelp for Government." All the real work is done by a sophisticated “Recovery Operations Center” where traditional law enforcement authorities use data-mining tools to uncover potential fraud. In no way has a community of citizen inspectors general been formed, and it’s not surprising that Recovery.gov has had no discernible effect on public trust in Obama.

Over on Inspector General Devaney’s “Chairman’s Corner” blog, a handful of posts (less than one per month!) demonstrate further how out of touch he is with how to engage the social web. In his March 2010 post, he lambasted “gratuitous criticism from some journalists and Internet grouches" who pointed out problems with Recovery.gov’s public data, instead of embracing their comments as constructive. My colleague Clay Johnson, then director of Sunlight Labs, chided Devaney for how poorly he dealt with online criticism, writing: “You could have created a spirit of civil openness and participation like no other in an incredibly charged political environment. You could have been a textbook model for every federal agency as they are writing their open government plans. . . . But instead you decided to go on the defensive. You decided to belittle the participants, and to further the controversy. You decided to keep up the data hysteria and draw a wall around yourself.”

A Voice and a Forum?
Seven months later—and more than a year into Recovery.gov’s operation—Devaney announced the launch of a public-facing blog which he said was “meant to give you a voice in what we’re doing [and be] a forum for your thoughts, comments and suggestions.” In its first five months of operation, from October 2010 to this writing, the blog, which is written by an anonymous "Recovery.gov" handle, has received about ten comments per month from the public. A request on the blog for people to submit photos to Flickr of recovery projects appears to have gotten less than a dozen citizen submissions (there are 211 photos now, but 200 were posted by Recovery.gov staff). So much for Obama’s promise to enlist ordinary people in making government more efficient.

Worse yet, the few comments that come in appear to be either from random people with no discernible connection to the purpose of the site (or SEO spammers), or from struggling public workers deep in the bureaucracy who no one seems to be responding to! One director of a small public housing authority writes that she spent three months of her spare time working to comply with a spending audit, in hopes of helping surface issues hindering their ability to best monitor the spending, but has since received no support. She writes, "There most definitely was not any issue of fraud, waste or abuse, just a small agency with 1 person trying to do so much of this work and being overwhelmed but still managing to do a terrific job here on Main St. We merely ended up being the fall guy to protect a lot of other people’s jobs that were being created or retained as part of this hierarchy and initiative."

Even when the blog does explicitly try to engage the public and some people actually reply, no one at Recovery.gov cares to respond! At the end of December, the blog's unnamed author asked readers if they had "seen recovery work in their neighborhood." Five people posted comments, including one named Jackie Baker, who said, "A neighbor (same subdivision, different street) qualifies for reduced rate satellite internet from the recover act but we do not even though we cannot get dsl, cable or wireless internet. Even cellphones don’t work here. Others close by also qualify. Our street was omitted from the database and it does not seem fair. We’re retired and every dollar saved helps."

The response? Crickets.

Meanwhile, over the Devaney's "Chairman's Corner" blog (which should be renamed "Earl's Quarterly" given how infrequently he posts), we have this missive from February 8, 2011:

In government, there’s a quiet revolution afoot. Maybe you’ve noticed, maybe not, but you should want to read this because the change is all about your tax dollars and government accountability. Congress created the $787 billion economic stimulus program two years ago, calling it the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Recovery Board, which I chair, was created to ‘’foster greater accountability and transparency’’ in how stimulus funds were used. The idea: Transparency would drive accountability to ensure your hard-earned tax dollars were used prudently. We think we have done the job but you should decide the issue...

He goes on to brag about how much information the site has pulled up from the "bowels" of government, and admits--to his credit--that the agency could do a much better job at more fine-grained reporting:

Is Recovery.gov perfect? The short answer is, no. Even with all of our innovations, taxpayers would be better served if we could track the money even more thoroughly. Under guidance written by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), we can trace funds to the prime and sub-recipients but in most instances, we can’t go deeper.

Here is an example of the problem: Let’s say a federal agency provides a Recovery grant to a state government, the prime recipient, and the government then distributes the funds to a city council for a local road project. The city council then sends some of that money to a contracting company. We can trace the money to those three recipients but the trails ends there. If the contractor retains a subcontractor with ties to the mayor’s brother, for instance, we have no way of knowing that unless we are tipped off.

Well, gee, had you actually tried to "enlist" the public in an open and interactive process of watch-dogging the spending, you would have a way of knowing about such corruption and waste, Mr. Chairman. Even more, had you used the social web to involve the public in a robust way, maybe there would be an army of informed and engaged citizens helping confront and respond to the massive disinformation campaign about the "failure" of the stimulus program to create any jobs.

It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

[I've adapted some of this from my new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, which discusses the Obama administration's efforts to make government more open and accountable in greater depth. Today is the last day to buy copies at the pre-order price of 15% off.]

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