Ever since the federal government began tackling an unprecidented financial crisis with equally unprecedented economic stimulus measures, conservative commentators have bemoaned the amount of control ivory tower experts have had in dictating the economy’s recovery. It’s a scene that’s easily constructed and plays on populist fears of detached technocrats turning the pain of an entire state’s unemployed workers into a numerical abstraction—as David Brooks put it, “10 guys sitting around in the White House trying to redesign huge swaths of the U.S. economy on legal pads.” Something like this worked well enough (in conjunction with WWII, of course) for the Great Depression and the New Deal, but that was before the Internet.
The widened scope of civic conversations and interactivity the World Wide Web has made possible have raised everyone’s expectations of having their voice heard. Barack Obama made transparency and accountability a theme of his campaign, but so far his administration’s economic recovery Web site hasn’t allowed this kind of interactivity, serving mainly as a repository for administration talking points, timelines, and links to other agencies.
To fill this gap is Stimulus Watch, a nonprofit, open-sourced forum that allows participants to rate and comment on the need for thousands of economic recovery projects. The site compiles a wish list from the United States Conference of Mayors Economic Recovery report . These shovel-ready projects range from HUD funding, public transit, road improvements, airport funding, schools, public safety, and all kinds of infrastructure. The Stimulus Watch database is searchable by program type, keyword, and location. Users can also contribute facts about each project in a Wiki format, and comment boards allow for discussions of each project's strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, users can take an up or down vote on whether they think a project should be funded.
This kind of crowdsourced application has certainly engendered open discussion about the spending of tax dollars that might otherwise slip away unnoticed (there are almost 8,000 votes and 250 comments on its most active entry), but after participants have said their piece and logged off, there’s nowhere for their input to go. As an independent nonprofit, Stimulus Watch has no link to the agencies that will actually distribute the money and can only depend on fostering a visible public discussion to make legislators and agency heads take notice.
Projects are compared by how active their discussion and evaluation boards are, how worthy of taxpayer money they’re deemed, and how absurdly wasteful they seem to be. One big loser so far is a disc golf course in Austin. The $100,000 provision for doorbells in Mississippi won’t break anyone’s bank, but it perhaps illustrates Stimulus Watch’s biggest strength: the ability to sniff out and separate even the tiniest scrap of pork from the truly deserving.
Stimulus Watch is well established, but there’s still room for these conversations to be influenced. And who’s better positioned to lead the discussion of how to build ourselves out of this recession than architects? There’s probably a project in your town on the site now. It’s time to put your eyes on the Stimulus Watch.