First in a two-part series.
If you want to know what's happening to the billions and billions of dollars in the economic stimulus plan, you could start at recovery.gov. That's the Web site where the Obama administration is tracking the money.
It's an enormous task — publishing a real-time, reliable accounting of what the government is doing — and it wouldn't have been possible a decade ago. Call it Government 2.0
As Easy As Checking Your Bank Balance
Remember the days when your phone had a thing called a dial on it? Remember when the library was where information lived? Back then, if you wanted to know exactly what the government was doing with tax money, you'd have to spend a lot of time dialing that phone seeking answers. Or you could spend weeks in the dusty stacks of a research library. Really, only academics and journalists did that sort of thing.
Today, checking in on the government is becoming as easy as checking your bank balance. At least, that's the way Macon Phillips, the White House director of new media, says it should be.
Phillips is part of a team figuring out how to gather, catalog and publish information about how every dollar of the economic recovery money — all $800 billion — is being spent. Sitting over his spreadsheets, he says, "Over time, as we get more quantitative data, this will start being things that people outside of government can interpret and sort of tap into to compare different disbursements across different agencies and do just tons of stuff."
Phillips, 31, came to the White House after working on the digital side of candidate Obama's campaign. He says he wants to bring that same kind of Internet savvy to the federal government, which traditionally has been guarded when it comes to information.
For example, when asked what will happen when people who don't like the administration's priorities get hold of this data, Philips says, "The numbers are the numbers. And whether people agree with us or don't agree with us, it's every taxpayer's dollar. And if people want to criticize it, go for it."
To that end, recovery.gov will eventually include a way for citizens to comment and send in ideas.
In the Office of Management and Budget, the belief that information about government should be free, simple to find and easy to understand is pervasive.
Deputy OMB Director Rob Nabors says it's time for a new era. "We've never really been in a position before where the government took on the responsibility of showing at a state level, at a local level, how federal dollars are being spent."
Working Toward Democracy 2.0
Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference that focuses on the intersection of technology and politics, says it's more than just Government 2.0, it's Democracy 2.0.
"We're allowing the public to connect the decisions that government makes in a way that's relevant to their civic lives," he says. "And that feedback look gives a sense of empowerment that they never had before."
Inevitably, there will be pitfalls because information is squirrelly, it's hard to keep track of, and it's easy to manipulate. At the same time, government bureaucracy is not squirrelly — it's lumbering.
For recovery.gov to work, these things will have to change. But Rasiej says there's no putting the genie back in the bottle. Citizens will only demand more information, and he notes that's causing a massive shift in what we expect from our government — and how we interact with it.