The ARRA Websites through the Lens of Digital Accountability and Citizen Engagement

The ARRA Websites through the Lens of Digital Accountability and Citizen Engagement

M. Ernita Joaquin (University of Nevada – Las Vegas, USA) and Thomas J. Greitens (Central Michigan University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-083-5.ch001
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Modern information technology offers new ways of fulfilling democracy’s goals. Various public services are now more efficiently facilitated through the Internet. Online information, particularly in regard to budgetary matters makes governments visible and open. Efforts remain inadequate, however, in harnessing electronic means to foster greater links between governments and citizens. In this chapter we argue that performance-based government accountability should accompany efforts to increase citizen engagement. We explore this area using a recent, intergovernmental arena of e-governance: the state websites for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). We find that states are better at including engagement data than at demonstrating performance-based accountability. At the end of the chapter we suggest enhancing e-governance relationships through a dialogue on performance and sustaining digital democracy, including its intergovernmental aspects.
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As we are learning, transparent reporting is a challenging endeavor…plagued with a multitude of mistakes and missteps...Although there is much to do…we have accommodated the needs of technologically sophisticated users...helping us send a message to the American people that we are here to protect Recovery funds and…keep a close eye on ensuring that the processes related to their allocation and use are transparent and accountable.

- Earl Devaney, Recovery Accountability & Transparency Board Report (Office of the Vice President, March 2010, p. 2)

When a recession hit the United States hard in 2008, electronic government or e-government came to the fore in government’s execution of fiscal policy. With the nation suffering from severe unemployment and tightened credit, President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to save jobs and stimulate public sector demand. ARRA injected a huge amount of funds to projects and services of federal agencies, the states, and local governments. To make the recovery effort transparent, the government monitored ARRA fund distribution and reported it publicly through a national electronic portal / recovery website.1 The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, consisting primarily of government Inspectors General was created to monitor spending and publicly release quarterly reports to the President and Congress. With the ARRA website and the continuous reporting of the flow of funds through the system, the board strived to meet its “ultimate goal” of providing “usable, readable data that informs people and allows them to view, question, and interpret the data” (Office of the Vice President, 2010, p.4). To encourage citizens to explore the government’s Recovery.Org website and witness the government’s commitment to transparency in spending matters, the website was bannered with the phrase, “Track the Money.”

The recovery effort and its attendant commitment to transparency extended to the states. The White House directed state governments to develop and promote their own recovery websites in order to better communicate what the government was doing to improve the nation’s economic condition. The state websites primarily reposted data from the federal site but as time went on, the quantity and type of the information on the sites seemed to diverge from one state to another. The states poured different levels of resources and e-government experiences into developing and maintaining their ARRA websites. One state whose ARRA site contained up-to-date and user-friendly information was that of Maryland 2 (see Figure 1). Because the state followed an award-winning performance-measurement and -management model or approach to e-government, their ARRA or Recovery website had a solid foundation in electronically communicating to citizens the federal government’s stimulus policy.

Figure 1.

Maryland’s recovery and reinvestment website


ARRA spending captured a high volume of political attention about the government’s role and performance in job creation. E-government reporting of ARRA spending allowed the public to scrutinize policy choices and implementation. But it also exposed the challenges in accomplishing e-democracy in fiscal policy, including its inter-governmental aspects.

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