Now that the US President has signed the American Recovery and Re-Investment Act and money must be made available as soon as possible to re-ignite the economy, US states use the Internet to gather ideas from their constituents. One good example is stimulus.virginia.gov, which allows people to register by their email address and fill a form with a project idea, indicating the domain it belongs to, the cost, the status (including whether it is shovel-ready, as my colleague Mark Raskino pointed out in a recent post).
The FAQ section on the web site explains very well how to proceed, and the site has already received over 2000 proposals. All proposals but those deemed inappropriate for language or theme – get posted and, according to a blog post on Tech Insider there would seem to be very little filtering and some proposals are good and realistic.
This is all nice and good and very transparent and participative. Until when you look at one particular FAQ:
How will my suggestions be used?
Governor Kaine and his staff are already working to ensure the interests of Virginia’s citizens are well represented as the economic stimulus package is developed by Congress and the President. Once the package becomes law, staff will identify projects from this website that may qualify for funding and follow up with the identified contact for the project. In many cases, the information will be sent to localities and other governmental entities because they will be responsible for picking projects.
The way I read this is: the state administration is already building its own list, and we may (but not commit to) choose proposals from this online list and follow-up (where follow up does not imply funding). It does not say that any will actually be funded, and this is perfectly sensible. But it does not even say how the selection will take place. Why not asking people to vote for the best ideas? Why not comparing whichever project might be chosen by the staff with the ranking provided by people who visit the site? Of course this is hard with thousands of proposals, but grouping by domain, type, status of project may make it more manageable.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an important step toward transparency and engagement. But it is just a game in which government cannot win.