Something's missing from the public debate about recovery.gov, the Web site proposed for public stimulus disclosure.
Most of the coverage has been matter-of-fact, a reasonable response to a site that is still just a placeholder. "Here it is," "check back soon," and "Keep an eye out" have been the typical responses. In the midst of deep mistrust and skepticism over failed TARP oversight, almost no one wants to praise a site that doesn't exist yet, for a large spending bill that many wish were unnecessary.
What's missing, though, is a recognition of what has changed.
The Internet has been recognized as having a central -- even fundamental -- role in enabling oversight and public access. The gap between public expectations and legislative initiatives has become significantly smaller, as Congress and President Obama recognize that a recovery or economic stimulus without a public Web site would be an immediate public disappointment -- car without a dashboard, or a school without grades. Beyond that, we're even seeing lawmakers and staff explore the positive aspects of realtime disclosure.
Recent amendments show that Congress is being forced to think through Internet's real policy relevance. "If people follow stimulus money that is intended to create jobs, why not link to relevant job openings," one can imagine Rep. Teague asking (amendment pdf), (also Neugebauer pdf). Indeed.
What good is public TARP disclosure if primary sources aren't publicly available online? (Walz TARP amendment). Good question.
This is a new enthusiasm, and shouldn't be overlooked. The same Congress that fought their way through enacting and implementing the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act is learning to apply digital public disclosure lessons to everything they do, albeit slowly. This is no small task.
Somewhat devoid of technological expertise, lawmakers, staffers, legislation drafters, Congressional Leadership, and even Presidents are learning what they can require, and what they have to gain, from engaging in our publicly networked culture. The Open Government community has swiftly pivoted from pressuring for digital disclosure to prescribing how it should be done better.
This is a proper role for outsiders to play; but we'll do well to also remember this: the opportunities of the digitally networked sphere involve a deeply cultural shift, and complex institutions like Congress or the vast executive branch are designed to value long careers in public service, law degrees, and networks of social influence. That is not a recipe for promoting technological competence.
Just as we advocate for the cutting edge technology that our country needs and deserves, we should recognize sea changes as they occur. Recovery.gov, now appreciated only as a matter of course, has been accepted by lawmakers as an integral part of the recovery plan - emblematic of just such a fundamental shift. Opinions of lawmakers like Jerry Lewis (speaking on the House floor yesterday), are in the minority:
Public dismay over the lack of transparency in TARP implied a public desire for more openness and thoughtful consideration of stimulus spending. A website is not oversight. Posting $606 billion worth of federal spending on a website does not ensure that these funds will be well spent. Each and every agency should be required to submit a spending plan to congress. On the front end, not after the fact to ensure that every dollar is spent as intended. Our constituents, Mr. chairman, and members, deserve no less.
He's right, a Web site is not oversight. But the web, and the public, certainly have a fundamental place in any well designed oversight plan, as our leaders are learning.