Why Organizers Should Add Online Oversight Tools to their Mobilization Repertoir

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka "the stimulus") will pump $787 billion into the economy over the next ten years. To ensure this process' transparency and accountability, and to lessen the likelihood that these funds will go to support corrupt politicians or to enrich private contractors, community organizations and social movements will need to mobilize their members around this issue to discuss, oversee and research projects funded by the stimulus. Mobilizing online using tools like Recovery.gov and StimulusWatch.org is a critical component of this effort.

Recovery.gov: Oversight We Can Believe In?
President Obama announced during his not State of the Union speech that funds allocated by the ARRA will be accounted for using unprecedented oversight tools, and encouraged Americans to visit Recovery.gov, the US government's official site for public information on the ARRA. Currently, Recovery.gov contains estimates of the ARRA's impact on state jobs and investments in program areas, news regarding progressive of ARRA funds, statements describing the intent of the site, and resources such as the full text of the ARRA and links to agency and state-specific stimulus sites. Federal agencies won't begin reporting on allocation of stimulus money until May 2009, and the recipients of those funds won't begin to report their usage until July, but according to the Recovery.gov FAQ, visitors "will have access to data as soon as we begin receiving it from agencies."

This form of public oversight is new for the US government, and new for community organizations. Recovery.gov essentially provides us with the magnifying glass and asks us to keep our eyes on the recovery process. To ensure we have access to comprehensive data and reporting, organizations will need to utilize Recovery.gov and mobilize their members to do so too. Groups can mobilize members to leave comments requesting data that isn't available, tell their recovery stories and review data together. Through collective action, communities can bring pressure to bear on the oversight process so we receive the information we need.

The site promises to be a great resource for data once it comes in, but it does not appear it will have sufficient tools to create a public forum and foster highly visible discussion around oversight issues. That is to say, while Recovery.gov will have primary source data available for download, and links to relevant agencies and programs, it is only one helpful tool (requiring one set of strategies) in a successful ARRA oversight campaign.

StimulusWatch.org Is Not Your Mother's Media Forum
Another critical tool will be StimulusWatch.org, an independently run site described by its creators as "built by volunteers and not affiliated with any group or organization," which compiles the full data set of 18,750 "ready to go" projects listed in the Conference of Mayors' Report, released January 17, 2009. Unlike data Recovery.gov is waiting on, the goals and funding requirements of these projects are already described, and since they will be among the first to receive funding and begin operation, now is the time for community members to review these projects and provide our input in the recovery process.

With its thoughtfully compiled set of public tools for describing, discussing and rating each of those projects, StimulusWatch.org has become the de facto public space for discussion of these Conference of Mayors' report projects. The site includes the report's own descriptions and data, such as number of jobs created and project cost, but the real value of the site comes from tools like the wiki section anyone can edit to describe and argue for or against the project, the comments section anyone can post to, and the trackback URL section that displays snippets of external blog posts about that particular project. This combination of data and tools creates a highly visible, highly accessible public space in which communities, movements, corporations and individuals will compete to push their frames and their concerns into our national recovery conversation.

Broadly speaking, StimulusWatch.org is a social media forum, a contested space in which groups engage in public framing contests. Because anyone can contribute to social media forums, they are generally easier to gain access to than traditional media forums. An organization's key to success in these forums is to strategically outnumber and out-contribute users with competing frames. Community organizations that do this will shape discussion in these forums, and since traditional media has learned to watch social media forums, winning a framing contest online can help an organization shape mainstream public discourse and opinions, and by extension, shape political discourse and opportunities. (Mainstream media agencies have sure taken notice of StimulusWatch.org. NPR, CBS News, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post have all covered StimulusWatch.org, and one local St. Paul TV station suggested viewers visit StimulusWatch.org to comment on projects their own report framed as "unnecessary.") Engaging in framing contests in social media forums also increases an organization's visibility, enhancing its organizing and education efforts, and increasing group cohesion through collective action. You can read more theory in one of my previous articles.

Since agencies responsible for approving projects will likely not appropriate funding for all of those projects listed in the Conference of Mayors' report, the input provided by community members on the importance of these project may play a key role in whether or not a project receives funding. Users can contribute to the site anonymously and from anywhere in the world, but as these are local projects, it is critical for community members to speak up about the projects that will affect them. If they don't, uninformed national opinion will help shape the conversations about local projects, and may have undo influence over whether their local schools receive upgraded ventilation systems, for example. Many projects have no comments or wiki description, and so few votes cast that even a small, properly trained and mobilized community organization could easily make their comments and contributions predominant in discussions around projects important to them.

Strategies for Mobilizing Community Members
Understanding some of the theory behind these forums, what are the concrete strategies organizations can use to train and mobilize their members to use StimulusWatch.org and other social media forums?

  • In your organization's next newsletter, include instructions for creating an account at StimulusWatch.org and urge members to register, vote on and discuss projects. Send out reminders that highlight particular projects in future newsletters.
  • If you or a partner organization have appropriate facilities, invite members to attend a training session. Walk them through account registration and show them how to search for projects and leave comments.
  • Contribute extensively to the wiki for each project. Utilize the experts in your community and networks to produce compelling, factual content for the wiki that supports your frame.
  • Write blog articles about projects of interest using the projects' trackback URLs. StimulusWatch.org will pull a snippet of the blog post into the projects' pages, placing your arguments on those pages and bringing traffic back to your site. If your members are tech savvy, ask them to do the same.
  • Include the RSS feeds from projects of interest on your organization's own web site to keep visitors apprised of new posts.
  • Ask members to produce rich media like photos or video that demonstrate the need for a project and post them to media sharing sites and social networking sites with a common tag users can search for. Include links to these on the project's page.
  • Contact local media to run a story on projects of interest, then reference that coverage in the wiki section of the projects' pages.
  • Collaborate with other organizations in your network to crowdsource the work.

These are just a few strategies for using StimulusWatch.org. For more social media strategies, check out some ideas from We Are Media and this great slide show by Beth Kanter. Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) also has excellent resources; their Nonprofit Technology Conference 2008 had several related sessions for which slides, notes and other resources are available for download.

Do you have other ideas? Leave a comment and let us know.

This article is the product of a collaboration between Grassroots Policy Project and Open Media Boston. Thanks to Grassroots Policy Project for the impetus to produce this article.

—Jesse Kirdahy-Scalia