If you listen to the news, you'd think that President Obama's $819 billion stimulus package was drawn up in watercolor. What will get funded? Which states will get money? What are the parameters? A new website launched this week promises those answers, and aims to act as an interactive accountability tool for citizens who want to keep a close eye on every federal dollar that gets spent.
It's called StimulusWatch.org, and it's a non-partisan, non-affiliated site that bills itself as a second layer of accountability for the Obama administration's big fix. It was built by a four-person team led by Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who studies government accountability. (You can download his recent paper on crowdsourcing accountability using the Web here.)
The projects listed on the site aren't user-generated content; they're drawn directly from something called the Main Street Economic Recovery Report, a list of potential stimulus projects compiled by the United States Conference of Mayors. The list is a well-formatted and detailed crop of suggested public works projects, with their potential for job creation and estimated cost listed for each.
There's no guarantee that the Mayors' list of projects—and thus, citizens' edits on StimulusWatch—will actually receive an audience in Washington, but the list is about as comprehensive as any government body could hope to compile. It was assembled with the assumption that localized public works projects are best conceived and executed on a bottom-up basis. That's also the assumption that superintends the funding mechanism for the President's stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which he is expected to sign into law on February 16.
The bill won't presume to dole out funding to specific programs; instead, it will distribute money to federal grant programs, that will in turn provide grants to cities for their proposed projects. The point is, it'll largely be up to the mayors of America's cities to decide which ideas will go into grant applications, so their list of ideas is well worth discussing.
So why do we need another site to list these programs? As StimulusWatch points out on its site, no federal site provides any feedback mechanism for the ideas the mayors have suggested. Once the funds are appropriated and work begins, no federal site is currently set up to take account of progress, budget, and real results, either. StimulusWatch aims to do just that.
The site's other stroke of genius is that it's set up not only to screen bad ideas, but to amend and revise them to become good ones. Some of the projects listed on the mayors' site are obviously not worth the money; take a look into any of the 10 categories of projects, and you'll find one in the Amtrak category: A $45 million project to buy rail cars for the South Carolina transit system to carry more riders from Summerville to Charleston. Jobs created: 75. Now, compare that to the $7 million proposal to build a new Amtrak station in Elk Grove, CA. Jobs created: 279. Obviously, this list needs to be optimized.
Users can help vet in several ways. First, they can vote on whether or not a given project is critical enough to warrant funding. They can also edit the description of the project itself using a wiki, and write in factual, neutral up-or-downsides. And finally, they can conduct discussions by commenting.
The hope is that the cities applying for grant funding will look at their constituents' suggestions and revisions on the site before finalizing their projects. As NBC's Matt Lauer rightly noted yesterdat morning in an interview with the President, many Americans may fea that the money will be doled out by out-of-touch wonks unfamiliar with the constituents, economies and needs of a given locale. Grassroots feedback on a site like StimulusWatch will hopefully prevent mayors and their administrations from falling into that trap. The site may also prove a useful tool for the "independent board" that the President says he'll establish to vet funding before the dollars go out the door.
It's always good to hear what local citizens think, but if you're interested in the experts' various plans, you can weigh their suggestions against this assemblage of ideas put together by The New York Times. It features prominent minds like Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia Business School and Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, who blogs at MarginalRevolution.com.
What Cowen points out is that one of the biggest problems with the stimulus plan is that it might leave in the dust much-needed programs that don't put up big job creation numbers. "There are many good ideas, such as electronic medical records, that will not benefit the economy as macroeconomic stimulus," he explains on the Times' list. But ideas like those still may be necessary to free up systemic bottlenecks that could hamstring other stimulus projects. Hopefully, Obama's independent board will infuse this eminently grassroots package with a little bit of big-picture, top-down wisdom before any shovels hit dirt.
There is "no magic bullet," President Obama recently told Fox News regarding the stimulus. But "we are closer to getting it right," he added. Hopefully StimulusWatch can help municipal governments around the country get that much closer. But do we trust crowdsourcing enough to give it a hand in the fate of our economic recovery?