DorobekInsider: Recovery Board – and Recovery.gov vendor – get pressure on transparency

Friday - 7/10/2009, 10:09am EDT

It has been all of about one day since the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board — yes, the RAT Board — and Smartronix, the company that was just awarded a $9.5 million deal to (re)build Recovery.gov are catching a lot of heat… for lack of transparency, of all things.

The Web world has been atwitter with discussion about this — there is even an online petition started by Jim Gilliam, who created WhiteHouse2.org, NationalBuilder.com, and act.ly.

Here is an excerpt of what it says:

Smartronix is getting $9.5 million to redesign http://recovery.gov in 6 months. That’s $1.6 million a month. The contract could be worth up to $18 million over 5 years… We expect Smartronix to be transparent in how they spend money, and are calling on them to unprotect their twitter updates, and tweet regularly on where the money is going and the progress of the project.

Recovery.gov is all about transparency in spending the stimulus funds, so it’s only reasonable that the contractor building the site make that process transparent too.

On the face of it, $9.5 million seems like a lot of money to build a Web site. My sense is that this is exceedingly complex — and I keep saying over and over again, the recovery project is extremely unique — in its scope, in its size, in its speed, and in the level of transparency that the Obama administration is trying to bring to the project. Nothing like this has ever been done before — and it all needs to be done yesterday. So there is a lot of pressure coming from multiple saides.

While the Internet seems to be in virtual meltdown over the price tag — the contract could be worth more than $18 million if all of the options are exercised — there is some valuable discussion going on — and there are some steps that the Recovery Board can — and should — take.

First — the Recovery Board needs to talk about the contract, and they need to do that sooner rather then later. Nature doesn’t like a vacuum, and there is an information vacuum right now. They need to fill that void with answers. (Federal News Radio has invited them to talk about the award. I hope they will accept that offer. And, to be honest, we’ll take as much time as necessary because this is such an important issue. If you have questions you think the board should answer, post them here.)

Second — It is the Recovery Board’s job to talk about the contract, not the contractor, Smartronix. To be honest, I haven’t seen the contract nor the request for proposals, but my guess is communicating about it was not included in the specifications. And, frankly, it was the Recovery Board’s decision to use the GSA Alliant contract for this bid and to hire Smartronix. It is their project.

Third — We need to give the Recovery Board and Smarttronix some time to get all their pieces in line. This contract was just awarded. In the end, the two sides need to talk and get a game plan together so they don’t fill the information vacuum with bad information — bad information that, and let’s be honest here, we will only bludgon them with later.

I know it sounds contradictory to tell the Recovery Board to speak, and yet to take their time, but… we all know how important it is to communicate. The Recovery Board has a very difficult task — and it is important that they succeed. As you can tell, there are people who want to help. Tap into them — and the board can do that by just keeping them informed… and asking for help. Target all this energy in a more positive direction.

There are some other reasoned responses out there.

Clay Johnson of Sunlight Labs posted this on the Sunlight Labs blog:

I don’t think [the price tag is] the real problem here. The real problem is transparency. The real problem is that while many are outraged at the cost, you can’t presume that the government isn’t spending its money wisely unless you know both what Government is paying and what they’re paying for. We don’t know what they’re paying for, yet.

And Greg Elin, a open government advocate and the former chief evangelist for Sunlight Foundation, also posted this in the Sunlight Labs e-mail list: