Obama's 'Transparent' Stimulus Plan: Is It?

What Does an $18M Website Look Like? Taxpayers Canâ??t Know -- YetABC News Photo Illustration
Data posted by the General Services Administration late Friday, offers the first glimpse of what taxpayers are getting for their $18 million upgrade to the Recovery.gov website.

President Barack Obama said the government's $797 billion stimulus program needs to be transparent -- but the plans for the Web site that is supposed to let people follow the money are somewhat less than that themselves.

When the government's General Services Administration released a mass of documents explaining the site redesign for Recovery.gov, as ABC's Rick Klein reported in The Note, large sections were redacted, or blacked out.

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The White House started Recovery.gov to help people track where the money is coming from, and where it is being spent to jump-start the economy, end the recession and bring down the unemployment rate.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversees the spending and the Web site, concedes it is no simple task to show how such massive amounts are being handled. In July it announced the site would be redesigned -- for $9.5 million and, perhaps, as much as $18 million in the next five years.

"Recovery.gov must be the direct link between the citizen and the Recovery," says Smartronix, Inc., the Maryland firm that is lead contractor for the site redesign, in its redesign proposal. "Citizens, no matter what their level of technical or political expertise, must be able to deeply engage with the Recovery and monitor its progress in their local communities and on a national level."

But scroll down through the document, and sections titled "Design Concept," "Site Navigation," and "Technical Approach" are largely blacked out. Come to the "Conclusion" and you will find that it is gone entirely.

Government's Response

Edward Pound, spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, said, "The material redacted was business-sensitive material, proprietary information."

Another person familiar with the redesign said it was unusual for the government to publish as much as it did on the contract with Smartronix. This person, asking not to be named, said the government was in a difficult position, trying to honor President Obama's pledge of openness without giving away proprietary information about Smartronix.

In a previous conversation, Pound said last month the money to beef up the site will be well spent.

"This thing has a lot more to do than designing a good-looking Web site," he said. Much of the money will be for the infrastructure behind the site, not for its appearance online, he said.

On Oct. 10 every recipient of government stimulus money will have to report what they have, and how they are spending it, he said.

"We have to have the capability to receive that information and post it," he said.. "And we need the infrastructure to support all of that. They are going to be filing very detailed information -- who the key officers are on every project, what they're paid, and so forth. And you'll have to be able to see that, very quickly."

Obama Stimulus Plan: How Transparent Is It?

Others said that while $18 million may be a lot to run a Web site, it's tiny compared to the size of the total stimulus package.

Pound said the site will become more user-friendly, with enhanced security and expanded data capacity. He said people who want to follow government spending will be able to download all the information for themselves. It will take more people, he said, but the project may not end up costing the full $18 million.

Recovery.gov -- click here -- shows that, as of July 24, $70.16 billion of stimulus money had been paid out to federal departments and state governments, to be spent on local projects including construction, infrastructure and the like.

The projects, the administration said, will pay off in the form of more jobs and more money to strengthen the economy.

But why not be more open about the Web site?

In its release of documents Friday, the GSA said, "Information that qualifies for redaction can include private business sales statistics, technical design, research data, non-federal customer and supplier lists, overhead and operating costs, non-public financial statements, resumes of company employees, names of consultants and subcontractors, details of production or quality control systems information, internal operating procedures, staffing patterns, and any information that may place a company at a competitive disadvantage for future procurements.

"We take our responsibility to implement the Recovery Act in an open and transparent manner very seriously."