Recovery Act: Shifting Mindsets

The fuss surrounding the release of the first full report on the use of Recovery Act money last week reminded me of an Recovery Logoexperience I had in 1980 while working for a congressional oversight committee.  We had received an annual report with program data for FY 1977 that I thought was quite useful.  I then asked the agency for the FY 1978 and 1979 reports since I thought they would be useful as well.  The response was “we just released the 1977 report, the others won’t be available for another two years.”

Shifts at the Federal Level. And now with Recovery.Gov we have program data that are only three months old!  And people complain about some likely inaccuracies!  The whole Recovery.Gov effort is pretty amazing – a data dump from more than 131,000 sources collected (and reviewed quickly) in a three-week period.  The media focused on jobs created, but the real story is the creation of new ways of collecting and reporting large amounts of data and the shift in mind set about how to handle it.

Of course there will be errors (in fact, 21 percent of the reports submitted were revised afterwards).  But the shift in mind-set is remarkable.  Instead of demanding accuracy and spending months cleaning the data, the emphasis is on timeliness and the expectation that the data will be cleaned as a result of public exposure.

Recovery.Gov head Inspector General Earl Devaney is probably causing shock waves through the audit community with his radical approach (well, radical for auditors) of releasing data that likely has errors before investing weeks of time cleaning it up.  In fact, he told Federal News Radio’s Suzanne Kubota, “What we’re all seeing, at least following the first reporting period, is not particularly pretty. This data may cause some embarrassments for some agencies and some recipients, but I believe in the long run the embarrassment will encourage self-correcting behavior and make it better in the future.”

Shifts at the State Level.  This shift in mind set is creating real pressures to do business differently at the state level, as well.  States had to create web-based reporting forms so grant recipients could report their data.  According to Computerworld’s Julia King in her article, “States Scramble to Track Federal Stimulus Bucks,” states had to quickly:

  • make data available,
  • create business rules and processes to comply with federal reporting requirements, and
  • devise ways to collect and aggregate data from multiple systems from across state government (since few have central accounting systems).

These efforts are having broader effects than just Recovery Act reporting.  It is changing mind sets and approaches just as importantly as it has been at the federal level.

  • For example, Massachusetts Recovery and Reinvestment Office’s deputy director Ramesh Advani compared the first reporting cycle to the environment of a fast-paced startup company, according to King.  A long-term improvement going forward, though, is that the creation of this program office creates a reporting focal point for grant reporting in the state for the first time.
  • Maine is also using the Recovery Act reporting experience to permanently improve its information transparency statewide, as well.
  • Utah is using existing systems to report Recovery Act funds, rather than creating a new system.  According to King, because the state had a centralized IT and accounting system and had already undertaken a financial transparency project already, the  Recovery Act reporting requirements were relatively straightforward.  The biggest challenge was collecting and reporting sub-recipient data, which it had not collected before.
  • The top-ranked state Recovery Act website is Maryland’s according to Computerworld’s Robert Mitchell, developed a sophisticated geographic information system to display where Recovery Act dollars were going.  In fact, a Washington-based research center has rated the Maryland Recovery Act site the best in the country for its efforts.  Visitors can view spending in specific areas, such as highway or housing, and drill down to see exact locations and other details.

So as mindsets begin to shift in terms of reporting data quickly and publicly in ways that can be readily understood, it will be interesting to see how long it takes before this becomes the governmentwide norm at all levels of government.  It looks like it didn’t take long in Maine and Utah!


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