This is the first in a regular column O'Reilly will be doing on reporting on e-Government issues that take place in the last week. Click on the "eGov Watch" keyword for previous articles. If you have content you wish to be discussed here, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Within minutes of Obama signing into law the economic stimulus bill (formally, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)), the web gnomes at the White House flipped the switch on a new website - Recovery.gov. If there is any question that Obama understands the medium of the Internet, its one that he (and his team) is rapidly dispelling: there has been more new web efforts debuted in the last three weeks than there was during the last eight years of the Bush administration.
More on that in a bit, but first a review of the site itself is in order.Recovery.gov The site itself is remarkably polished, feeling official without the frequent stuffiness that seems to be the hallmark of government sites. Visitors are greeted by a video of President Obama announcing the new portal and its purpose - to provide a way for people to see the progress of the ARRA's implementation over time, to establish a place for people to get access to resources, and a way to gain feedback from people on the program itself. THe video, hosted by YouTube, is high quality, although Obama needs to learn to cut down on the hand gestures that get clipped off at the bottom of the feed (as a hand gesturer myself, I know full well how hard an impulse that is to control when you speak to video).
The site provides a chart breaking down how the money is allocated - $288B in tax relief, $144B in state and municipal relief, $111B in infrastructure and science (yes!), $81B in protecting the vulnerable, $59B in health care reforms (mostly tied to electronic health records), $53B to education and training, $43B in energy systems and the remaining $8B in a general "other" category that likely includes administration reform. The site also provides links to the bill itself, though connection to that site eventually timed out, not surprising given that the bill itself is packaged as five large PDF files.
The site itself also includes a cute timeline widget (significantly, not a Flash app - apparently Flash has begun to become contentious on the government sites) that illustrates the breakdown of events set up by the ARRA bill:
The timing is aggressive - grants to start being awarded within a week, allocations for entitlement programs to begin in less than three months, first reporting by recipients by mid-July. Obviously the intent here is to light a fire under the bureaucracies. One interesting consequence of this is that this may very well also jumpstart a more agile methodology within governmental agencies, as their mandates shift towards making frequent incremental changes and reporting in short, regular bursts. Whether the agencies will respond should give a good gauge to the degree of change that Obama will need to make at the civil service levels.
Beyond these features, the site includes a place for people to post their own "recovery stories", a feed showing the most recent articles posted to the site (including a photo exposition by White House photographer Pete Souza of the process of getting the bill into law). A FAQ with useful (and in some cases amusing) answers - such as the rather measured response that while XML of the data for mashups isn't currently supported, that feature will be added soon.
There are some very subtle messages being given simply by the presence of the site itself. One of the most important is that Obama and has team have recognized that they need to be able to control the message - not the media. Obama is telegenic and frequently funny, which makes news reports of his actions generally good news copy, but he also understands that the mainstream media, which was practically lethargic under the Bush administration until near its end, has been energized and is likely to be highly critical of his actions overall.
The Internet, on the other hand, is clearly the medium of choice for Obama. He's practically annointed YouTube as the carrier for his video ... and they have responded with some fairly impressive results. Furthermore, his use of video will likely serve as an example for others in his administration to do the same (if nothing else, there's definitely a future for videographers in the White House). Yet more to the point, he also has recognized that even the news producers (and certainly the decision makers) are increasingly going to the web first to obtain information, and as such, the Internet will let him both better control his message and defuse the influence that the mainstream media has on information flow from the White House.
By all indications, Recovery.gov should end up being a critical portal for both governmental transparency and, at paradoxically, governmental control over its message. Whether they can sustain the momentum of the these first few weeks remains to be seen, but overall, Obama's bidding fair well to becoming known as the Internet President.