Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fed Stimulus Tracking Site Defenders Political Ad

Critics: Private Web site does better job at stimulus tracking than government
By Mike Cronin
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Despite President Obama's promise to track "every dime" spent under the economic stimulus bill, the private sector is doing a better job of that than government, critics say., a Web site the government established to keep track of stimulus spending, lacks crucial data and is difficult to use, they say.

"We have a government Web site that can't and won't make information publicly accessible," said Rep. Daryl Issa, R-Calif. "There needs to be a greater will and commitment to following through on the pledge to create transparency."

But Earl E. Devaney, who chairs the federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board in Washington, the organization responsible for the Web site, argues "it's fair to say the site is more transparent than any other attempt that's been made" to track federal government spending.

"We put up the most complex database of government spending, ever, in five or six months," Devaney said. "Normally, that would take a couple of years at least."

The Obama administration promised openness regarding stimulus spending because many critics said the $787 billion package won congressional approval in February too quickly, and with too few safeguards.

Ryan Alexander, president of the Washington-nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense, thinks a free, private-sector Web site with a similar name — — does a better job of listing bid-ready federally funded projects that government entities are advertising or awarding nationwide.

People can log onto and learn, for example, that as of Sept. 5, Allegheny County was scheduled to receive the most stimulus-related money of any county in Pennsylvania — $775.8 million for 154 projects that include stimulus funding.

A few more clicks and that Web site reports that, as of Sept. 5, contractors could bid on 123 projects in Pittsburgh and two in Greensburg. The site lists each project's location; estimated cost; owner and type, such as PennDOT construction; and number of affiliated jobs.

That information isn't available on the federal Web site.

Data roadblocks

The federal site provides visitors with information that includes stimulus-related news, job opportunities, links to stimulus-related sites, recovery-related investment categories such as energy and health care, and ways to report misuse of stimulus money.

It does not provide easy-to-find city and county project data, and makes it difficult to locate useful lists of information at the state level — particularly if you don't know what you're looking for, Alexander said.

"But the federal government can't provide that type of state and local project data because they don't have it," said Michael Balsam, who directs strategy and products for Onvia, which runs "They don't have a way to track it. There's no parent-child relationship between county and city governments and the federal government. That's where the idea for came from."

Issa notes that most Onvia site hits come from federal employees looking for information about stimulus spending.

That's correct, said Eric Gillespie, Onvia's chief information officer. Nine of the top 10 visitors to the site work for the federal government, he said. Watchdog group officials say that's because provides accurate data and is simple to surf.

Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-Wash., became so frustrated with that she started her own Web site to better present stimulus spending data:

"I wanted to create a one-stop shop to allow the public to know where the federal government is using their money," McMorris-Rodgers said. " consolidates information into one place that otherwise would be contained on numerous Web sites and difficult to find. The Web site provides information in plain English and is easy to navigate."

Administration's efforts lauded

Despite's flaws, some critics commend Obama's and Devaney's efforts. Onvia has 12 years experience of mining this type of data; the Obama administration, a few months.

"No other presidential administration has done this before," said Craig Jennings, a senior fiscal analyst with OMB Watch, a nonprofit watchdog organization in Washington. "It's going to take some time. But the jury's still out on recovery transparency in general. It's absolutely necessary to hold their feet to the fire."

Devaney emphasizes that Onvia built to make money. The government Web site — in addition to showing the American people how their money is being spent — can be a tool to discover and halt fraud.

The recovery board is requiring recipients of stimulus money to report contracts and other data beginning next month, Devaney said. Within weeks,'s second version will be online — probably before the self-imposed deadline of Oct. 10, he said — providing a more user-friendly interface and more ways to access data.

Still, Issa and others are not impressed.

"If you're looking for waste, fraud and abuse, is a more useful tool," he said.

'Political advertisement'

Issa said the federal site is "currently more of a political advertisement for defenders of the stimulus, touting states and regions receiving stimulus funds, than it is a tool for the public to see what projects on the ground are being built and by whom."

Alexander concurred.

"It's not pretending that it's neutral," Alexander said. "It's an arm of the stimulus package."

Gillespie said Onvia executives never intended for the Web site to compete with the federal site. is an advertising vehicle for Onvia, he said.

By showing contractors stimulus projects that are available, it tells businesses "here's what we do and what we can offer," Gillespie said. "We track every government transaction, stimulus and non-stimulus. Stimulus spending represents only 2 percent of all government projects."

Clayton Stahl, president of Gulisek Construction LLC in Mt. Pleasant, said company officials have used to track stimulus spending even though the Westmoreland County firm is not an Onvia client. Gulisek is a highway-bridge builder working on four stimulus projects, including one in Robinson.

"We find it very parallel to what some other government agencies, like PennDOT, provide," said Stahl, whose company belongs to other organizations that advertise government contract work.

Gillespie praises Obama administration officials for being "on the right path," with one caveat.

"They should just put all the data up and allow people to start poking at it," Gillespie said, repeating one of several suggestions he gave to improve during congressional testimony in May.

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