Transparency of Recovery.gov under scrutiny

The White House has launched Recovery.gov, a Web site that will allow users to track spending under the $787 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama signed into law last week.

However, the site might not be as transparent as Obama and Congress wanted.

Some of the state and local government databases and networks expected to send data into Recovery.gov are not as advanced as the federal site. They are not all compatible with one another or federal formats, according to several watchdog groups involved in oversight of the stimulus. Experts say fixing the problem could prove challenging at a time when the goal is to speed stimulus money into the economy as rapidly as possible.

Stimulus efforts get under way

As state, local and federal agencies prepare to use funds from the economic stimulus package, oversight of how the money is spent remains a concern. Here are some of the recent developments regarding accountability.

  • Some governors and state legislatures are establishing independent boards to track the money. For example, in Montana, a state senator called for creating a bipartisan commission of legislators and members of the public to monitor how that state spends its federal stimulus dollars.
  • Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee’s ranking member, plan to hold a hearing March 5 to discuss accountability for stimulus spending. Witnesses are expected to include Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget; Gene Dodaro, acting U.S. comptroller general; and Phyllis Fong, inspector general at the Agriculture Department and chairwoman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
  • Watchdog groups say they are frustrated that lawmakers stripped the legislation of whistleblower protections. “Accountability got mugged,” wrote Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, in a blog entry posted Feb. 11.
  • The Professional Services Council said it is concerned about the lack of funding for federal acquisition employees to oversee stimulus spending. “We support oversight, but there need to be resources at the front end to carry out the oversight,” said Alan Chvotkin, the council’s executive vice president and counsel. “This is a capacity issue and a capability issue.”

“When the federal authorities give money to states, that tracking is kind of opaque,” said Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst with OMB Watch, which recently helped form the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery with 32 organizations. “The federal government gives money to states, states give it to cities, and it gets convoluted.”

The watchdog groups urged the Obama administration and the states to quickly standardize those data formats and transmissions to maintain the most up-to-date and accurate stimulus spending totals.

The database challenges with tracking federal spending are not all new. Some issues surfaced in the development of USASpending.gov, which has been operating since December 2007. While the Web site has received high marks for transparency in general, it has a mixed record on subcontracts and grants.

Administration officials have pledged that Recovery.gov will allow visitors to track the stimulus spending. That database will contain data flowing into it from federal, state and local agencies and possibly contractors. About half the stimulus money is expected to flow through state and local governments.

On May 20, federal agencies are to begin reporting their competitive grants and contracts, according to Recovery.gov. On July 15, the recipients of grants and contracts, which include state and local governments and businesses, will report on their performance.

While governors generally support transparency and reporting, the goal must be balanced by the need to move quickly. “The key is to meet the transparency objectives without setting up barriers to getting people back to work,” said David Quam, director of federal relations at the National Governors Association. “The devil will be in the details,” he said.

The Coalition for an Accountable Recovery outlined a vision of how states might improve their disclosure.

“Since much of the Recovery Act money will be spent by state governments, it is imperative that the federal government establish reporting standards and online reporting mechanisms that each state entity receiving funds would be required to use,” the coalition said in a statement released Feb. 4. “Distribution of federal funds should be conditioned on satisfactory reporting by recipients and subrecipients of federal funds.”

The coalition recommends tracking:

  • The same information that USASpending.gov collects, in addition to copies of all contracts.
  • Descriptions of the contracts’ activities and services.
  • Performance measures for the work.
  • Data about recipients, including whether the work was done on time and if it was done well.

The watchdog groups also recommend timely reporting and posting of the data, preferably every 30 days after receiving Recovery Act funds. Tools for mapping geographic patterns, graphing trends and downloading detailed data for further analysis must be a part of the national Web site system, too.

Most states operate Web sites to report procurements, but the states vary significantly in reporting information. And only 23 states use public Web sites to disclose subsidies such as economic development incentives and job-training funds, according to a November 2007 report by the Corporate Research Project for Good Jobs First.

“States typically keep enormous spreadsheet records of their deals, they just haven't been disclosing most of them,” said Good Jobs First Executive Director Greg LeRoy, whose group is a member of the accountability coalition. He said the federal stimulus funding to states will include both procurements and subsidies, so it will be important to track spending in all categories and ideally, outcomes such as how many jobs were created.

The government should require online reporting that allows the public to easily search, sort, track and download data for each state, Jennings said.

The states should be required to report on the funds received from the federal government, including information about federal subcontracts, in a standardized format. Ideally, the states could use Web 2.0 methods to share data and provide comparisons between state spending rates, among other things.

OMB officials are expected to hammer out some of those details in the coming weeks. An OMB memo dated Feb. 9 states that initial guidance on reporting spending and performance information to Recovery.gov will be issued immediately, followed by more detailed guidance in 30 to 60 days.

“There are a lot of implementation questions about transparency that need to be answered,” Jennings said. “The Recovery Act gives leeway to the OMB in implementation.”

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