- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

President Obama’s announcement Monday that stimulus spending will be accelerated to create or save 600,000 jobs should be met with skepticism. Not only has unemployment continued to rise since the stimulus was passed in March, but there is no reliable measure to track how stimulus funds are spent and what effect that spending has. White House promises to let the sun shine on how that money is used haven’t materialized.

It is simply not the case that taxpayers are “able to go online and see where and how we’re spending every dime” of the $787 stimulus package, as Mr. Obama pledged in February. On the administration’s self-heralded Recovery.gov Web site, there are some general details about program funding, but it is little more than spin with news releases buttressed by timelines and spreadsheets that the average person would be unlikely to decipher easily.

In a clear acknowledgment of the problem, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board recently confirmed that the General Services Administration will soon announce a contract to redesign the site.

There is already a better, if not perfect, private-sector model. Seattle-based Onvia launched Recovery.org in March with the intent of tracking in real time every federal, state and local dollar spent. But even this more efficient effort is limited in what it can accomplish. The avalanche of cash the government is spending has proven too much to monitor.

Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney, who is trying to track stimulus spending, told a House subcommittee May 5 that the federal site will have more details starting in October when states have to tell the federal government who received contracts and grants. But their reporting requirements fall short of dollar-for-dollar tracking because states are not required to provide that level of detail to the federal government. All that is mandatory is project-level data on billions in taxpayer funds.

Given its lax interpretation of what constitutes transparency, it was not surprising to see the White House in late May promoting the new Open Government Initiative Web site, which includes such groundbreaking innovations as a blog and link for the public to submit ideas about government. Mr. Obama apparently thinks that opening an online complaint box — a function already served by e-mail — is a sufficient response to demand for information.

Touted as the central Web site to find data that other government agencies have already posted, the Data.gov concept makes sense.

There is a need for a central clearing house, but there is little actual data on the site. In addition, surfers are at times simply redirected to existing federal sites. Ultimately, the process of finding federal facts and figures is as difficult as ever.

Some states and localities have already blazed a better path. The Missouri Accountability Portal, arguably the most comprehensive of all state-level spending data sites, is a model. Americans for Tax Reform praised the site and British Tory Party leader David Cameron even promoted it as a “powerful tool” for fiscal austerity at his party’s spring conference in April, according to the Manchester Guardian.

Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs has pointed to her office’s own Where the Money Goes Web site in helping her staff identify $8.7 million in budget savings.

One benefit of federalism is that the federal government can learn from the states. Many states offer useful models of transparency, but Mr. Obama seems to need some tutoring in Federalism 101.