July 9, 2009 — -- The idea was transparency. If the Obama administration was spending $797 billion as stimulus money to jump-start the economy, end the recession and bring down the unemployment rate, U.S. taxpayers had a right to know where the money was going.
And so the White House started Recovery.gov, a Web site to let people do just that.
But it's a work in progress. The government's General Services Administration quietly put out a release Wednesday night saying the site would be redesigned -- for $9.5 million and, perhaps, as much as $18 million in the next five years.
After ABC News' Rick Klein posted the news Wednesday night, the comments flew. Nine million bucks for a Web site?
"I do think $9.5 million is a bit much," said Craig Jennings of OMB Watch, a watchdog group often critical of government spending. "They already have a large data set to work with. What Recovery.gov will do -- and whether they need $9.5 million to do this, I don't know -- is display it."
The site -- click here -- shows that as of July 3, $60.4 billion of stimulus money had been paid out to federal departments and state governments, to be spent on local projects -- construction, infrastructure and the like -- that would, ostensibly, pay off in the form of more jobs and more money to get the economy going again.
Beyond that, watchdog groups say -- and the administration concedes -- it is often hard to wade through the data on the site and figure out where, precisely, there might be projects in a particular area.
Edward Pound, spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board that runs Recovery.gov, said 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. "We're not here to waste the taxpayers' money." He said much of the money will be for the infrastructure behind the site, not for its appearance online.
On Oct. 10, he said, every recipient of government stimulus money will have to report what they have, and how they are spending it.
"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."
Others working on the site, asking not to be quoted, 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.
$9.5 Million for Economic Stimulus Web Site
In its first month, the government said the site got 150 million hits. But the numbers have tailed off since then. Alexa.com, a site that tracks Internet traffic, says Recovery.gov ranks 36,308th among Web sites in the United States. (Google, Yahoo and Facebook lead the list.)
"It's not a bad Web site," Andrew MacRae, a Web site developer, told ABCNews.com in March when the site first went up and we first reported on it. "But it's not a tool to tell me where the money is being used."
"We've made numerous complaints to OMB," the Office of Management and Budget, said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a national policy resource center. "One of our principal issues is that after the money changes hands twice, it disappears.
"It goes, U.S., state government, state agency, contractor -- black hole."
The government has awarded the contract for the Web site work to Smartronix, Inc., a firm in Maryland. According to the Recovery Board, the contract "is initially valued at $9,516,324 through January 2010. If all options are exercised through January 2014, the total task order will be valued at $17,948,518."
Jennings of OMB Watch still had his doubts.
"OMB Watch built a site called FedSpending.org, which does basically the same thing," he said. "We said we'll license it for $600,000."