Federal Eye: Could Crowdsourcing Help Control the Stimulus?

As the federal government starts doling out billions of dollars from the economic recovery package, there’s growing concern that officials will not be able to account for every project and every dollar spent. Should the government enlist everyday Americans with an Internet connection to help? Jerry Brito thinks so.

Brito is a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and the founder and co-creator of StimulusWatch.org, a Web site that tracks “shovel-ready” projects that may eventually receive stimulus funding.

The site lives on crowdsourcing, or outsourcing a task to a large undefined community that takes relies on Web technologies and access to public data to perform its function. Brito spends most of his time studying and writing about transparency and accountability and started paying close attention last fall as lawmakers and the incoming Obama administration began debating the merits of an economic stimulus package.

Skeptics suggested that cities and states lacked the “shovel-ready” projects needed for a wide-scale stimulus. The U.S. Conference of Mayors quickly compiled a wish list from big city mayors, who had plenty of projects that lacked the necessary funding. Brito’s site lists every project on the mayors’ lists by location, keyword or the type of project. Users can vote on the merits of each proposed project and help write a description for each one. StimulusWatch 2.0 will track each project that receives stimulus funding and allow users to post updates on their progress, Brito said.

Tomorrow Brito testifies at a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on how state and federal auditors plan to track stimulus funds. He will appear with Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board and state and local auditors.

“You don’t have to hire an army of auditors, because it’s impossible for them to follow every single dollar and every single transaction,” Brito said in an interview. “However you can augment their work with citizens, who can keep tabs on things that go on in their neighborhood.”

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Pam Broviak

I think that if people really want full transparency and disclosure, there are ways to incorporate social media into the inspection and contract administration process. For example all recipients could microblog all major milestones of each project such as bidding, opening bids, bid tabulations, notice of award, construction start, pay estimates, substantial completion, and final acceptance.

All of us who inspect construction also fill out daily diaries describing what contractor worked, the number and type of workers and equipment on the site that day, the work that was completed, any issues or problems, etc. Because this is a daily diary, why can’t these be posted in a blog type format online offering the public the opportunity to read and comment.

The bottom line is all of these tasks are already being done on each project. How much more difficult could it be to require recipients of stimulus funds to put it all online is a standard type of format? This is what would help bring about true disclosure and transparency.