Tracking How Stimulus Dollars Are Tracked

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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

A vocal cross section of technology experts, academics, good-government groups and federal employees weighed in this week on the future of Recovery.gov, the Obama administration's Web site that officials promise will eventually track every single dollar of the federal stimulus.

Since the site's launch in late February, observers have raised concerns about its design, the technologies used and whether it will serve its promised purpose. At stake is the government's accounting of the $787 billion stimulus package and the administration's first big experiment in adapting technologies the Obama team successfully used during the 2008 presidential campaign to the task of government oversight.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, in partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration, on Monday launched "A National Dialogue," an online forum at http://www.thenationaldialogue.org/ that continues through May 3.

Users of the site can post an idea, comment on others and vote on their preferred suggestions. The forum received more than 300,000 visits in its first seven hours and more than 1.5 million by Tuesday night, according to Earl E. Devaney, chairman of the recovery accountability board and the site's de facto managing editor.

Devaney has $84 million at his disposal and will soon finish hiring a staff of 30 to oversee the site and coordinate oversight efforts with federal inspectors general and state auditors.

The Web site must be able to collect and display by mid-October spending information on each stimulus-funded project. Devaney's team has several critics: High-tech firms and good-government groups want the ability to download and analyze spending figures and redistribute them across third-party sites.

Some Web designers have said they dislike the site's design. Lawmakers have expressed concern that Devaney has not acted quickly enough to report on funds already distributed. Still others say this week's forum has been dominated by technology companies looking for an easy way to pitch their products to government officials.

In response, Devaney has asked for patience and suggested that skeptics grade the site's progress on a monthly basis. The board has considered several design models, including a display that mirrors traditional newspaper Web sites, he said.

President Obama appointed Devaney chairman of the board in late February, a move widely praised by lawmakers and members of the federal oversight community because of Devaney's reputation for being highly independent. Some call him "the Bob Vila of government," a repairman-for-hire assigned to address difficult situations over his 40-year federal career as a Secret Service agent, director of criminal enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency and inspector general at the Interior Department.

The label is one he embraces, he said, because "I actually don't get excited unless something is broken."

"While I may not have the technical expertise, I'm perfectly capable -- I think -- of finding the best people in the country and pulling them together," he said yesterday during one of his first interviews since taking the job.

His staff has kept close watch on this week's forum and has reached out to users for more information. "We have to make this site robust enough to accept this huge tidal wave of data that's going to come rushing in here in October. That's the challenge. That's what keeps me up at night," he said.


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