Tracking Stimulus Dollars: Dot-Com Vs. Dot-Gov

When Congress approved the stimulus bill, it made a point of setting up a Web site called Recovery.gov to allow citizens to track all those billions in spending. But if you've gone looking for it, you might have stumbled across another, very similarly named site, Recovery.com.

The dot-com version is not run by the government, but it also tracks the stimulus — and much of its information is more up to date. In fact, it has spending information that the government won't have until October, and its data provide a sneak peak into how the stimulus spending is going.

The site is run by Onvia, a Seattle company that collects and sells data on government procurement. Whatever the layer of government — whether state, county, school district or local water board — Onvia wants to know what's being purchased.

"[We track] millions and millions of transactions that are happening around the company all the time," says Eric Gillespie, Onvia's chief information officer. "Whether you are selling paving services for highways, or you sell copy paper, wireless routers, we let you know when someone at any level of government wants to buy what you're selling."

Onvia sells its information to prospective contractors. And when the stimulus bill was being considered earlier this year, the company realized it was in a unique position to track all that new spending. It tried — and failed — to sell its services to the federal government. So instead, it went into competition.

It bought the Web site names Recovery.com and Recovery.org, and set up its version of the government's tracking site. The sites look similar — "eerily similar," Gillespie admits — with similar clickable maps to break down the spending state-by-state.

But Recovery.com also allows public comment on particular projects. That generates plenty of angry venting, though it's not clear people realize that they're not actually talking to the government.

"I think there has been some confusion over the names," says Ed Pound, spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which runs Recovery.gov.

"I haven't really evaluated their information," he says. "I think they do a good job, but they have a different mission than we do."

In fact, Onvia says 13 of the 15 most frequent visitors to Recovery.com are on government computers. And that may be because Onvia has real-time information on local contracts. Under the Recovery Act, states and local governments have until October to report back to the federal government how they're spending the stimulus money, but on Onvia's site that information is already coming in. And Gillespie says it's providing some interesting early insights.

For one thing, he says, local governments seem to be getting bargains: With supply costs down and competition fierce, bids for stimulus projects are coming in 16 percent lower than usual.

But Onvia's data also show that the money is being spent rather slowly. Through Sept. 14, only about $26 billion in capital contracts had actually been awarded. That's a tiny drop in the national economy's bucket. Still, contractors such as Tony Sieger, who runs Advanced Technology Construction, are waiting eagerly for that money to start coming out.

"We're seeing more opportunities, but we're not seeing more awards," says Sieger.

Advanced Technology Construction usually does a lot of government building work, and Sieger has bid on several stimulus projects. But so far, he says, none of them has resulted in an actual contract award. When it comes to creating jobs, he says, there's a big difference between merely allocating money and actually awarding contracts.

Sieger says the reason for the delay is clear: "I had a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers tell me that there's five or six of them — contracting officer types — and that they have over 100 projects they have to execute. There's no physical way for them to do it."

Onvia's Gillespie has another theory — he says the government is so worried about waste that excessive caution is slowing things down.

In fact, Vice President Biden admitted as much in a recent speech at the Brookings Institution. Biden, who oversees the stimulus, said: "The criticism was legitimate of me that we were moving too slowly to distribute taxpayers' funds in those first 100 days. But I thought we had to set up a system to ensure that those taxpayers' funds weren't wasted."

Biden says the pace of spending is increasing, something that's backed up by the data on Recovery.com. A wave of projects is moving toward the award stage, and contractors say if those come out soon, it should produce a similar wave of new jobs next spring.

One project that's already been awarded: $18 million to a software company in Maryland for a complete redesign of Recovery.gov.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.