By Mike Stuckey
Senior news editor
updated 4:27 a.m. PT, Wed., Nov . 11, 2009
Senior news editor
Halloween has come and gone, but your U.S. government is focusing some attention and a bit of money provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 on bats. Not the baseball kind, but the furry, flying, cave-dwelling creatures more often associated with trick-or-treating than federal spending.
The National Park Service is offering somewhere between $5,000 and $25,000 to a contractor who can install a “bat compatible gate” in Great Basin National Park, Nevada. Similar to a dozen that already exist in the park, resource manager Ben Roberts says the gate will keep humans out of an old mine while preserving access for the six species of bats that roost there. Interested bidders should know that the 8-by-8-foot gate needs to be built 57 feet inside the mine in Lincoln Canyon. And bring strong backs or pack animals. The job site is 2.2 miles and a 1,000-foot elevation gain from the nearest dirt road.
This opportunity is just one of the thousands of government contracts and grants you can explore using the “Stimulus Tracker” — a new msnbc.com online tool that provides details on projects being funded via the $787 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. More commonly known as the stimulus bill, the massive funding package was passed by Congress in February at the behest of the Obama administration to help pull the U.S. out of recession.
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The bat gate is one of the puniest jobs detailed by the “Stimulus Tracker,” which keeps tabs on jobs that are receiving some Recovery Act funding.
As reports and data generated by the act pile up, tracking stimulus outlays and results is fast becoming the hottest cyber parlor game for bloggers, journalists and Joe Taxpayer.
“This new transparency, and the use of the Internet and Twitter and the use of the media, has really connected people like never before in being able to get the information,” said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, the nonprofit famous for its “Pig Book” reports on federal earmarks.
Everyone can track the spending
Online tools promise to let everyone be a Monday morning quarterback on government spending. After all, who knows better that a road needs repaving or a school needs a new roof – or that they don’t — than folks who live in the community? And who doesn’t have an opinion on whether or not the government should have spent millions to help non-digital TV owners convert their sets so as not to miss a single episode of “30 Rock?”
Other tidbits gleaned from a few hours of playing armchair auditor with the Recovery Act data in "Stimulus Tracker:"
* The big winner so far in sheer dollar volume is California, the nation’s most populous state with 50 percent more residents (and 21 more members of Congress) than No. 2 Texas. The Golden State currently has $11.2 billion worth of stimulus work under contract.
* Vermont’s $299.3 million worth of contracts put it at the bottom of the list in dollar volume, befitting its status as the nation’s 49th state as ranked by population.
* The largest listing is for hazardous waste cleanup work at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state's Benton County, with an estimated value of $1.65 billion.
* In Elkhart County, Ind., the focus of msnbc.com’s “Elkhart Project” about one community’s struggle to recover from the recession, the lion’s share of nearly $65 million being spent, some $39.2 million, is going to Navistar Inc., for its work to develop electric delivery trucks. (Click here to read related article, U.S. stimulus buoys U.K. factory's workers.)
“Stimulus Tracker” is one of a number of online tools launched by news organizations, watchdog groups and private enterprises to capitalize on what President Obama said would be “an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability” when he signed the 1,071-page Recovery Act on Feb. 17.
Best known is the government’s own site at www.recovery.gov, where the president promised “every American can go online and see how their money is being spent.” Recovery.gov, which is operated by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and relies on data reported by recipients of Recovery Act funds, has been widely criticized as inaccurate and poorly presented.
Another popular site for tracking stimulus data is www.recovery.org created by Onvia.com, a Seattle-based firm that uses public records to gather and publish information on government jobs, for sale to contractors. Onvia provides the data for msnbc.com’s “Stimulus Tracker.”
In business for 13 years, Onvia provides information on direct spending by 89,546 government entities, including the federal government, said Michael Balsam, the firm’s chief solutions officer
Tracking it all
Balsam said the 40,000-plus “Active Recovery Projects” covered on his company's site include all “projects that are funded in whole or in part by recovery dollars.” This means that the dollar volume of about $120 billion is inflated beyond stimulus funds because it mixes in money from other sources.
However, “This is as close as you’re ever going to get to that number,” Balsam said. “Most of these projects had no money and it is Recovery (Act) money funding them. Over time, as things get less crazy, we’ll go back and do second and third analyses to see if we can see what that split was.” (Msnbc.com's "Stimulus Tracker" differs from the Onvia site in that it spreads contract dollars evenly over the number of locations mentioned in the contract).
Some of the best evidence of the quality of Onvia’s stimulus data comes from the site’s user base, Balsam said: 13 of the top 15 Internet domains from which users enter Recovery.org are owned by the federal government.
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No wonder, said Williams of Citizens Against Government Waste, who has been disappointed by data available at the government’s Recovery.gov Web site. “You cannot find details of specific grants,” he said. “It’s very much of an aggregator. … I have not been able to find any sort of grant detail, contract detail on any of this funding.”
Other groups from watchdog organizations to think-tanks are pressing the federal government to improve its site.
“Both the quality of the data and its awkward presentation preclude meaningful analysis by analysts, taxpayers, or the news media,” said Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which joined with Good Jobs First and the Economic Policy Institute to issue a detailed list of problems at Recovery.gov last month.
An OMB Watch official later told msnbc.com that the coalition was having productive talks with federal officials about improving the site’s presentation.
And Earl E. Devaney, chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, said that many problems with the data were the result of mistakes by the recipients of the funds. “We are urging federal agencies to work closely with recipients to correct any problems in their reports,” he said in a statement on Recovery.gov. “Agencies can point out errors, omissions or other problems, but only recipients can make changes in their reports — and, then, only during a brief period.”
The thorniest detail for stimulus watchers is trying to determine how many jobs are being created or saved by the deluge of federal cash, the most important metric set by Obama, who placed that number between 3 million and 4 million when he signed the bill.
Recovery.gov reports a total job figure as calculated from data provided by contract, loan and grant recipients. “Stimulus Tracker” provides estimates based on standard formulas from the agencies that are awarding contracts.
The numbers are vastly different and a source of constant debate. When the government site was saying last month that 30,000 jobs had been created, the White House was insisting the figure was much higher, although its estimate ranged from 600,000 to 1.5 million. The government site was subsequently updated to show 640,329 jobs created.
“Stimulus Tracker” provides only per-contract estimates, no overall total.
Despite the problems, longtime government observers like Williams say online access to spending data as provided under the Recovery Act will likely attract many new citizen watchdogs. It could also build on a sense of grassroots empowerment triggered by such successful citizen campaigns against the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska and the immigration bill of 2007, he said.
“More and more we’re seeing people, A, get the information; and B, see that they can effect change and do something big like kill the bridge to nowhere,” Williams said.
Onvia’s Balsam agreed. “That’s the coolest part about this whole thing, the democratization of this information,” he said. “The transparency genie is out of the bottle. … It’s unprecedented access. It’ll only get better.”