Web Site Begins Collecting Data From Stimulus Grant Recipients

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

As Obama administration officials traveled the country this week announcing the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in new economic stimulus grants, a government Web site began accepting the spending and jobs data from grant recipients that will provide the first fact-based progress report about the economic recovery efforts.

By mid-October, the government plans to post information from stimulus money recipients online, allowing the public to review the data. President Obama promised unprecedented transparency as he built support for the stimulus package this year, saying that anyone would be able to track each dollar.

Government observers, many who applaud the transparency, said that the move may provoke as many questions as answers.

"This is a game-changer," said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. "We don't know what it's going to mean, how it's going to work. It's part of the administration's central strategy of accountability."

Recipients of stimulus money have until Oct. 1 to register with FederalReporting.gov, which was launched Monday. Once registered, they have until mid-October to submit their first progress report, which must include detailed information about how and where the money is spent and the number of jobs created by the funding. Recipients could face legal action if they purposely report incorrect data.

"If we get a sense that someone is intentionally misreporting how money was actually spent, or trying to deceive the federal government, that will not be tolerated," said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.

The reports will appear on Recovery.gov, the online home of the economic stimulus program operated by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. The panel will correct any technical errors in the data but will otherwise leave the information untouched. "We're not going to be in the business of rewriting summaries," transparency board spokesman Ed Pound said. "It's going to be fairly unusual for the government."

The disclosure process might also make the data vulnerable to criticism and mischaracterization.

Last month, the Drudge Report highlighted a few pages of data from Recovery.gov. The Drudge Web site ridiculed the Agriculture Department for spending millions of stimulus dollars on ham and cheese. Within hours, Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement explaining that the purchases were meant for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supplies food banks. Vilsack's response averted further potentially negative media attention.

"It's just these little things that could potentially be the pitfall, and that's the stuff that agencies should be paying attention to," said Craig Jennings, a fiscal policy analyst with OMB Watch, a good-government group that supports transparency.

"Unless the federal agencies are kind of standing on top of the recipients and the data to make sure there's nothing funny about it, the chances of those kinds of stories are going to be a lot greater."

"The bright side of this is that you put the information out there, and citizens find ways of weaving information together that the government on its own never would have thought of," Kettl said. "The less happy side is the prospect that people will go through and literally dredge up individual anecdotes to sway opinion."

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