October is report card month. States must begin explaining how they used stimulus funds this month and every quarter thereafter until the money is gone. As the reports roll up, there's promise that the bickering over the effectiveness of the first portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will move from anecdote to data. Speaking of data, this inaugural, reporting period albeit delayed, will be a very public test of the federal government's much touted technology of transparency.
All the analysis and commentary about the stimulus won't likely get better than the conclusion reached early on by legendary investor Warren Buffett: "Our first stimulus bill was sort of like taking half a tablet of Viagra and having also a bunch of candy mixed in." Then and now, there are plenty of arguments for and against more stimulus. None of them really matter when seen through the prism of the state and local governments that are downstream from the federal funding spigot. Stimulus is to the Obama administration what homeland security was to the George W. Bush administration -- an expression of their respective priorities and the channels through which those priorities are funded.
The conundrum: As the economy remains retrenched, there have been calls for another stimulus package -- even though there are few visible signs that the last injection of funds has had an effect.
Conservative economists contend that, by definition, government cannot stimulate the economy. Liberal economists counter that government is the spender of last resort during a recession, and fault the $787 billion stimulus for being too small. "The difficulty here that it is not quite big enough and not quite soon enough," concluded James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas. For his part, New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman cautioned, "Faced with a sharp drop in revenue, most states are preparing savage budget cuts, many of them at the expense of the most vulnerable. Aside from directly creating a great deal of misery, these cuts will depress the economy even further."
After months on the new money chase, it's worth remembering that funding is always a means to an end, not an end in itself. "The top goal, of course, is about good public policy -- to deliver the services that the public needs in the most effective manner possible," said John Miri, senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government.
Enter digital modernization, and the center's model for modernizing during difficult financial times. It's a strategy paper called Renovation Nation, contending that everything we need to know about modernization we can learn from home improvement TV. "I loved the analogy," said Steve Jennings, former CIO of Harris County, Texas. "That's where our future lies."
Colorado CIO Mike Locatis agrees and keeps a dog-eared copy close at hand. "Renovation Nation hits on, really, all of the salient themes," he said. "You didn't take the easy way out with the paper. You weren't just talking about the art of the possible without the bridge to get from our current legacy environments and the modernization needs for new applications."
You can hear much more from Jennings, Locatis and others on special-edition podcasts. Join the conversation online.
Editor's note: This column originally appeared as The Means of Modernization in the October 2009 print issue of Government Technology.