As is now showing up all over the social web and news reports, the site Recovery.gov - which was set up to help the public hold government accountable for stimulus spending - lists a stimulus contract awarded to Clougherty Packing LLC for $1.19M for the listed service of "2 POUND FROZEN HAM SLICED."
Read as stated, this clearly leads one to believe that the U.S. government spent nearly $1.2M for 2 pounds of ham ...sliced.
Now, as has since been clarified via a press release from the U.S Department of Agriculture, "2 POUND" refers to the individual size of each of the 760,000 pounds of ham that were actually purchased - not just one very very expensive ham.
In putting out this press release, the USDA has completely missed the point.
The point of setting up and hosting a website such as Recovery.gov is to allow the public - and in particular, journalists - to look through it and hold the government accountable for how an historically-massive amount of money is being spent. When launched, one expects such a site will contain accurate information that is backed by the government - especially if the government is going to spend $18M dollars on building said website. Without accurate and understandable information, we as citizens and journalists simply can't do our jobs, and the consequence of us not doing our jobs is potentially (even likely) irresponsible spending of $787 billion.
No laughing matter.
The stimulus is something that impacts each and every American's life, and the fact that a website is set up to allow any ol' citizen to see how their money is being spent is a laudable effort. At least it's laudable by the expectations we've come to have of our government.
To be honest, though, it really shouldn't be noteworthy that government lets us know how our money is spent - our taxes are one of the only things Americans don't get a receipt for after all - and it's definitely not appropriate to praise the transparency of new efforts like Recovery.gov if today is an example of how they implement. Right now Recovery.gov is basically useless to me. And as someone who really cares about how all this is going down, it's quite frankly making me very angry.
And to be clear, the issue of bad data and extends far beyond our lovely ham examples.
What's just as bad is that if you enter the contract number for the $1.2 ham in question into http://usaspending.gov, you get an incomplete record of Clougherty Packing and the contract as a whole. That is, unless Clougherty's annual revenue is in fact $1. (Hint: It's not.)
And these hams are just one case. Check out this contract for $5.8M to Keplin Construction Service Inc that has no description at all.
It's just so completely unacceptable that I'm baffled at how it happens in the first place.
Recovery.gov already has issues for being far behind privately run Recovery.org in reliably tracking up-to-date stimulus spending. If .gov doubles down with inaccurate, unforgivably-incomplete data that requires a press release to clarify each entry ...well then, why the heck do we even bother?
I've been asked by friends, "well, what do you expect? It's the government..."
And you know, I consistently respond with, "yes it is, and I have confidence they have it in them to do a good job." I still believe it's true. There are a lot of smart folks working in agencies across the government right now and, to be fair, most haven't been there that long as the new administration has hired up. I know, specifically, that there are smart people at the USDA and at the Department of Interior.
Sadly however, the fact that there are quantifiably smart people in government is mostly serving to make issues like these examples on Recovery.gov even worse. It's much more frustrating and disappointing as a result.
So here's what I want ...and what I think I should be able to expect.
I want to feel confident that when I get excited because my government announces they are committed to a new level of transparency and citizen engagement through initiatives like recovery.gov, I can trust that their commitment is true - and that it will actually matter. I want to be able to trust that my government's leaders are going to invest in technology wisely and responsibly, and build useful tools that reliably provide me with the information I want or need -- the information that I'm paying for.
I hope the folks down the street in the White House and in every agency can start getting their act together fast. They've built a lot of good will by announcing and launching new online tools like Recovery.gov, but they're losing it quickly by allowing it to be populated with crap.