Challenges Facing Recovery.gov and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board

By Dennis D. McDonald

The new Administration’s Recovery.gov web site has gone “live.” The President has a brief introductory video, an initial timeline of events is provided, the public is asked for input on the impacts of current economic conditions via “recovery stories,” and an appeal is made for input to the activities of the new Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board that will be monitoring performance.

Here’s what the site says about the Board:

The job of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board is to make sure that Recovery.gov fulfills its mandate — to help citizens track the spending of funds allocated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Board consists of Inspectors General from about ten major cabinet agencies — including the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Commerce — and one of its duties will be to review the comments and questions submitted to the site.

Though the Board has not yet met, please feel free to submit your comments and questions below, and they will be gathered to present to the Board upon its first meeting.

Here’s how I responded via the Board’s “suggestion box”:

Whatever methods are developed to represent and report on the various processes that are involved in implementing the stimulus, they need to be understandable to professionals and to the public.

There needs to be developed a way to render the same data set in terms that are meaningful both to policy makers and to the public.

And, we need to makes sure that purely quantitative measures can be supplemented by the actual commentary provided by those affected.

The development of such measures for reporting on progress should be conducted openly as there are many interesting viewpoints that can contribute value in the process.

Finally, beware the involvement of vendors who insist on restricting access through incorporation of proprietary tools and techniques that cannot be easily copied and re-used by others.

This is all very exciting. It has the potential for — I apologize in advance for using this over-used term — being “transformational” in how government is conducted.

It’s not just the performance of the “stimulus” package that will be interesting to track, though. How the Administration develops the systems and processes that are needed to track and report on progress in an open and interactive fashion will also impact the recovery. Whether you call these systems and processes “e-government” or “government 2.0” or something else entirely, they will need careful planning as well as speed and experimentation. No one has ever tried to do “open government” before on such a massive scale. As I’ve pointed out already, the challenges that must be faced are great.

We have seen in recent days how a constant onslaught of negative economic news negatively impacts public sentiment. In spiralling fashion this further erodes confidence, spending, and the economy.

There now exists the strong possibility that how the public sees and experiences the programs reported through Recovery.gov may have just as much potential for driving economic improvement as the programs themselves.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald. Originally published on Dennis McDonald’s Web Site.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Good post Dennis. I find all of this very exciting. I don’t think it’s the magic pill but it’s a step in the right direction. 3 steps forward, 1 step back. Government needs to engage its citizens more and good things will come of it (but there will be some learning elements along the way).

Profile Photo Daniel Bevarly

I don’t know. In his video introduction, on the home page of Recovery.gov, President Obama states, “We’re counting on your participation.” What does he mean?

Right now, Recovery.gov looks like it will become a very large, pre-emptive and possibly aggressive Open Records repository.

One important feature is missing from the home page that is critically important is an explanation of the expectations for citizen involvement and for government transparency.

It’s important for government to create clarity for how information will be posted and how public comment/input will be collected and used by project team. I would also like to read more about the role of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. How transparent will their work and activities be?

I don’t want to sound too critical. It’s only because I know more can be done to make Recovery.gov better, more meaningful –more interactive and more engaging. And like others who followed the amazing online candidacy of Barack Obama, my expectations for this administration are very high for innovation in this area.

Profile Photo Kim Patrick Kobza

Dennis, Your point on the opportunity for transformation is so true. In theory the theme of transparency is very powerful. But building a portal and publishing model does not represent much change. The key is to create transparency for state and local projects. Inviting public comment in a federal portal, on a local project will have limited effectiveness. These are unlike broad federal public policy issues. Recovery.gov represents a centralized management of a decentralized community or network.

Further transparency is rarely created in one to one publication. Much more transparency would be created with network transparency in citizen networks. I have posted on this with respect to the Act in my govloop blog here. http://tinyurl.com/bequsv

I think that everyone will get fully behind your efforts because they are so important. But there needs to be more critical and creative thinking for such a huge undertaking to enable it to realize Title XV potential. Legislation of design was not the best approach. Need more flexibility both from technology and behavior.

Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

Steve – yes it is exciting. Definite progress.

Daniel – I agree. Making this meaningfully interactive is going to be a challenge, as I pointed out earlier. But Recovery.org is a step in the right direction. At minimum it will provide more information to interact with than has been the case in the past. An interesting policy question is, how much responsibility does the government have to provide a platform for interaction?

Kim – agreed. A major design challenge is whether the same system can provide transparency and participation at both a local and national level. This is where we get into the debate of what relationship there should be between the national government and local governments. Control is not the same as transparency. Right now we need access to information on what is happening and whether or not it is doing any good. How that relates to legislative, management, and control processes is a critical piece on top of that.

Profile Photo Barry Everett

The last sentence of your post here is the most essential: “…may have just as much potential for driving economic improvement…”.

Background: Since November 4, we have watched how the critics and media have spun, spit and speculated on every move that the new administration has made, or not made. With the now obvious rumor war being foisted upon every aspect of the government in place, from healthy second guessing, and normal questioning, to outright lying and misstating facts.

Some may that we cannot be concerned with that, that our job, as communicators and information managers, that we must remain neutral and ignore the political. I say that we must incorporate the planning and anticipation that other parts of the ‘no drama’ government have in moving forward, without allowing background noise to drive our efforts.

Recovery.gov is destined to be the test bed for all that follow in the coming months and years. It has everybody’s attention, both fans and not, friends and not, valid users and not. It will be scrutinized for accuracy by real concerned citizens and professionals, but it will also be ripped apart by those whose motives are not concerned with truth or real progress. We cannot ignore all these factors in our plans, processes, policies, and implementation. There will be missteps and restarts, trials and successes. The managers and technical staff must be fully engaged and flexible to keep the vision moving forward without losing faith in the message and confidence in our abilities to make this work.

Doing this in the hot spotlight of such an important project as the ARRA, during this transformational time in our history will be like doing experimental brain surgery at the halftime of the Superbowl. In the early years of the WWW, we had the luxury of anonymity. Nobody knew what we were doing, and we had to beg for content, and try to explain to content folks that this new toy would actually be quite a powerful communication tool. They smiled and told us to go back and just make sure that their secretaries could get the damn dot matrix printer to work so they could get that memo out, please. My, my, maybe we should have been more careful in our zeal to make thing seem so easy.

Besides the cheer leading that I’ve just done, the project is going need a few other things:
1. Full Staff
a. Content
b. Technical
c. Security
d. Information
e. Marketing
f. Readers, Writers, Coordinators
2. Partners in the Executive Branch
3. Partners in the Legislative Branch
4. Change.gov Volunteers
5. Moderating Everything
6. $$$$$

Copyright (c) 2009 by Barry C. Everett

Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

Thanks for the very thoughtful and productive comment, Barry.

Assumed in what you say is existence of a “plan.” I’m a big believer in planning in these cases — someone needs to have a big picture about what is needed and has to be able to keep all the moving parts moving together.

One challenge with today’s online environment though is that a major part of the “moving parts” is made up of the public (or rather, “the publics”) which can’t be directly manipulated or controlled. Private sector organizations are coming to terms with this when they gradually incorporate social media and social networking into their customer relations platforms. With something as complex as the stimulus package (http://www.ddmcd.com/ARRA.html) just creating a unified picture that can support bother oversight AND public involvement is a huge challenge.

Given this complexity, I’m tempted to fall back on structured and formalized planning processes (e.g., http://www.ddmcd.com/strategy_alignment.html) but I think it’s important to not get too caught up in the planning since that can take forever. While I’m impressed with how quickly OMB’s “Initial Implementing Guidance for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009” (http://tinyurl.com/buwcym) was distributed, I definitely would like to know more about by whom — and how — this process is being managed. In the interest of “transparency,” of course!

Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.
Alexandria, Virginia USA
http://www.ddmcd.com

Profile Photo Barry Everett

The MAX (max.omb.gov for Feds) has been infused with a new arena that is recruiting involvement in the Open and Innovative Government Community. The OpenGov Group asks for representatives from all Federal Agencies to participate in the initiative to address the January 21 Memo.

Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

Barry – max.omb.gov is open only to Federal employees and contractors. I hope there will also be opportunities for the public to get involved in developing the “open and transparent” policies and practices that are needed!

Dennis

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Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.
Alexandria, Virginia USA
http://www.ddmcd.com