March 11, 2009 — -- Andrew MacRae is worried. He's just started a new job, he's concerned about the economy -- and if his tax money is being used to make things better, he says he'd certainly like to know about it.
So he tried the Obama administration's new Web site, Recovery.gov, which was billed by the White House as a portal to explain where $787 billion in stimulus money will be spent. He says it did not deliver for him.
"It's not a bad Web site," said MacRae. "But it's not a tool to tell me where the money is being used."
MacRae, who lives in Boston, probably accounts for a few of the 150 million hits that the administration says the site has gotten since it went live last month.
But, like a lot of people, he found he did a lot of clicking around -- only to find that the money is not out there yet.
Eventually, the administration promises, there will be more. But in the meantime, here's what you'll find.
Tracking the Stimulus
"Within the next few weeks, we'll begin to present information about how EPA is implementing the Recovery Act in each region of the country," it says.
Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, has been tracking the federal expenditure plans, and says there is time for the administration to improve the Web site before then. But he says he is concerned that, at this point, states are not required to provide information on the outcomes of a particular project.
"So far, there is no requirement, for example, to list how many homes have been weatherized, or how many roads have been created, or how many new broadband customers have been added," LeRoy said.
He also is concerned that the site doesn't have the technical functions to make it consumer friendly.
"The site should have a search function so you could search a project by zip code, by city, by contractor or state," he said. "As it stands now, there is no way a consumer can effectively track and analyze the actions of the government."
Can an online recovery-tracking program actually work?
"I think that's a fair question to ask," said Craig Jennings of OMB Watch. "What would not be fair is to expect some kind of giant jobs board online. You have to get through a lot of bureaucracy, and that's difficult."
Show Me the Money
Recovery.gov offers links to the stimulus programs in each state -- but about half the states have not yet set up Web pages of their own, and the quality of state sites that have gone up varies greatly.
Maryland, for example, offers a map of the state. You can click on your area, and icons will appear to indicate there are programs beginning.
On the other hand, people in New Jersey may click on "Infrastructure and Investment Funding Opportunities," then try the "State Energy Program" -- and find the key information buried at the very bottom of the page:
"New Jersey expects to begin to receive stimulus funding during the month of April. The State is awaiting further guidance from the USDOE [Department of Energy] on this," it says. "More detailed information will be posted as it becomes available."
One concern for Jennings is that while Washington requires states to be up-front about how they use stimulus money, the subcontractors they hire are not subject to the same scrutiny.
"There is going to be multiple levels of subcontractors that won't have to report out. That could mean funds are going to subcontractors that, for example, don't perform well or have ties to elected officials," Jennings said. "We don't know if the subcontractor is even an American worker. There is no bird's eye view to ensure that one subcontractor is collecting federal funds from more than one state."
OMB deputy associate director for strategic planning and communications Tom Gavin said he has heard the criticism but promised that the Web site will evolve.
"The Web site is an unprecedented effort to bring transparency and accountability to how taxpayer dollars are spent," he told ABC News in an e-mail. "The initial steps already visible at Recovery.gov are the floor, not the ceiling, of our transparency efforts. We want to get good information into the public's hands quickly."
Obama, in a video clip on the site, acknowledges that the project is far from done.
"Take a look now," he says, "and come back often. Recovery.gov will be changing and growing a lot in the weeks and months to come."
Which brings us back to Andrew MacRae, the Boston man we met at the beginning of this story.
"The Web site now is more of a brochure than I expected," he said.
"There's a lot of money," he said. "Throwing up a Web site that works is not out of the question."
MacRae has some experience in this. It so happens he's a Web site developer.