Obama's First 100 Days Show Willingness to Listen to State and Local Concerns (Opinion)

Office of Management and Budget must still issue guidelines on tracking stimulus spending.

by / June 3, 2009

If President Barack Obama's first 100 days prove anything, it may be that his administration's collaborative style is building support -- or at least buying some time -- in the state IT community.

Obama's economic stimulus package is pumping billions of dollars into state and local economies, but it also comes with aggressive requirements for providing transparency into how those dollars are spent -- and the task of meeting those requirements is falling, by and large, into the laps of CIOs. Governors will sign off on the veracity of stimulus spending reports that are sent to the federal government, but CIOs will build the systems and processes that track those dollars and deliver spending data to citizens and policymakers.

It's a job that comes with a rapidly approaching deadline and -- as of May 1 -- very little information on how to meet it. Although billions of dollars are already flowing into state programs, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) still hadn't issued guidelines telling states what spending data they should track and how they should track it.

Speaking to state CIOs in late April, Dave Quam, director of the Office of Federal Relations for the National Governors Association, summed up the situation pretty well:

"We are in day 74 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- one of the largest spending bills of all time -- and we don't have all the rules," he said, during the National Association of Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) midyear conference. "The thing to have fixed in your mind right now is Oct. 10. That is the deadline for states to report back to the federal government on how all of this money got used. That's new for government. You haven't done this before, and it's going to be a challenge."

Yet, for all the challenges, CIOs and other state officials seem to be giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. During its first 100 days, the Obama administration has earned a reputation for listening to the concerns of state and local officials -- and this issue is no different.

"The federal government is asking for help," said Quam, speaking one day after meeting with federal officials on stimulus implementation issues. "They're listening to what states have to say, and they're taking those suggestions and implementing them. That's fantastic news because it's an opportunity for all of us to help solve this and try to get it right."

That sentiment was echoed by CIOs attending the NASCIO conference, who said the administration's willingness to consider feedback from states and localities offers a refreshing change from previous years. And the bold goals of Obama and his technology team are sparking optimism in the government IT community, even if it's tinged with some skepticism.

States may push back once stimulus reporting details are revealed. And it remains to be seen how far Obama can push his government transparency and participatory democracy agenda. But for now, there's an appreciation for the administration's collaborative approach and a palpable sense that these guys might be onto something big.

"They tell us routinely, if they get this right -- and they'll need states' help to get it right -- they'll change government forever," Quam said. "And I think they're right."