Senators Grill Stimulus Watchdog on Recovery.gov

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Yesterday, Earl Devany, Inspector General for the stimulus, and Rob Nabors, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), went before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs to discuss details of their oversight plan for recovery funds. One of the chief topics was the web site, Recovery.gov. The White House has sold Recovery.gov as a beacon of transparency, a web site a top a hill that will shine down as an example for all government web sites. However, as our Bill Allison has noted in numerous venues, the web site does not offer all of the information or content that it could. This lack of content became a sticking point in the hearing.

Devaney, who answered most of the questions, agreed with many of the senators who complained that Recovery.gov was not all it was cracked up to be. Describing why citizens are going to the web site, which is receiving high traffic, Devaney chalked it up to “curiosity,” but stated that if the web site does not become more interactive and substantive, the public will lose faith in the recovery effort. This applies particularly to interactivity and responses to user comments, Devaney stated, and that the recovery oversight board needed to get out in front of this faster.

In achieving the goal of interactivity, Devaney said that he is talking to outside groups and individuals who have ideas about how to sort through millions of comments and respond appropriately. He also stated that he is willing to meet with any of “the smartest people” to talk about this.

Sen. Tom Coburn raised pointed questions regarding the accessibility of the data, contrasting the data search functions and presentation on Recovery.gov to that of USASpending.gov, the federal site tracking all federal spending. Coburn’s biggest issues were the lack of multiple search capabilities on Recovery.gov and why USASpending.gov wasn’t used to display the recovery spending. Nabors responded that the public has a unique interest in the recovery spending and that the information needed to be brought to the public in a speedier fashion than USASpending.gov could deliver. The idea behind Recovery.gov is to provide real time tracking of recovery spending. In his “wildest dreams,” Nabors declared, he would want to be able to track overall spending, as in what is displayed on USASpending.gov, in real time.

Coburn pointedly asked when the “ideal” Recovery.gov would be online. Devaney, under pressure from Coburn, answered, “Yes,” after Coburn asked him if the site would be complete in a year.

One of the more interesting suggestions came from Sen. Claire McCaskill, asking Devaney if he had considered hiring unemployed journalists to provide investigative capability along with context and storytelling to Recovery.gov. Devaney, in what seemed like a happy surprise to McCaskill, stated that he had two interviews scheduled with journalists the very next day. McCaskill responded, “Great minds think alike.”

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