Budget & Finance

Year in Review: Recovery Act Spending Prompts Call for Government Transparency

Stimulus funds mean stringent reporting for state and local agencies.

by / December 15, 2009 0

The government-sector IT community was abuzz during the first quarter of 2009 after the lobbying group TechAmerica estimated that the nation's economic stimulus package would generate $100 billion in technology spending.

Driven by that impressive total, many observers reactively predicted the infusion would spur a high-tech renaissance -- powering communities with smart grids, transporting travelers in high-speed trains and linking together health records to rein in costs accrued by hospitals and doctors.

Those forward-looking projects someday may come to fruition through a combination of government leadership and funding disbursed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. But the path for making the vision a reality quickly took unanticipated turns during the year.

In particular, state and local government technology offices were thrust into an unexpected dual role. Rather than serving primarily as first-line recipients of grants and contracts (as many originally anticipated), IT agencies were more immediately facilitating technology used for recordkeeping of stimulus spending, and providing tools and services that promote government transparency.

The first role was of necessity because rules in the Recovery Act mandate stringent requirements for data reporting; the latter role came from President Barack Obama's first-year agenda, which he formalized in an Open Government Initiative spelled out during his opening week in office.

The Obama administration has said the "unprecedented" detail of reported data will improve government's accountability. In fact, some observers believe the lasting legacy of the stimulus won't be economic, but that it will cultivate a permanent culture of transparency. If and how that actually happens remains to be seen.

Stimulus Shapes New IT Roles

The dollar amounts earmarked for IT in the Recovery Act are staggering: $7.2 billion for broadband, $20 billion for health IT, $4.5 billion for the nationwide smart electricity grid, and $3.2 billion for energy efficiency block grants. Millions more are set aside to modernize unemployment insurance systems, construct high-speed rail lines and build smart transportation infrastructure.

Most of these spending categories will take at least a few years to progress from the contract phase all the way to a completed project. The fastest-moving piece of the pie in 2009 was broadband funding, a portion of which was administered jointly by two federal offices: the Rural Utilities Service and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. In 2009, the agencies reportedly received 2,200 applications competing for $4 billion -- despite the fact that municipal government officials said their offices lacked the manpower to adequately pursue grants from that pot of money.

Notwithstanding the widespread interest in building broadband capacity, the stimulus forced government IT shops -- or in some cases, finance departments -- to focus their attention on inventing new workflows that would accurately collect billions of dollars worth of financial data from municipalities and contractors that received stimulus funds. The sea change this caused can't be overstated. Never before have states had to collect spending data from "sub-recipients" to fulfill obligations stipulated by federal funding.

Further complicating the effort was a short deadline set by the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB): The first quarterly reporting period came in fall 2009, only eight months after Congress passed the Recovery Act. Also, government officials were in limbo for the first half of the year as the OMB ironed out rules for the data tracking and how files would be formatted and uploaded to a centralized clearinghouse, FederalReporting.gov.

To meet the demanding schedule, some governments opted to purchase a project management software solution tailored for the stimulus, from the likes of Microsoft, SAP, IBM and CA. Many of these products were made available in whole or in part via the cloud. Other decision-makers chose instead to maintain recordkeeping as they had done in the past, relying on tried-and-true Excel spreadsheets

instead of a new IT dashboard.

By the end of 2009, the OMB continued work to improve the accuracy and completeness of data reported for the expenditures and jobs created through the stimulus. The ultimate goal is to create a data set that's completely transparent for the public.

Transparency Takes Off

Making the stimulus data publicly available was only one facet of Obama's push for transparency during his first year in office.

Two technology "czars" familiar to state and local government are executing the president's Open Government Initiative. Former Washington, D.C., CTO Vivek Kundra was named federal CIO, and among his first accomplishments were the introduction of Data.gov -- a Web portal making government data sets public that in the past could only be found in the dark corridors of bureaucracy -- and USAspending.gov, which lists dollar amounts of the federal government's 7,000 IT projects.

Obama also named former Virginia Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra the nation's CTO. Chopra spent his first months pulling together a governmentwide transparency directive that would require federal agencies to utilize technology to engage citizens in policymaking, and bring forth interactive Web sites with real-time data feeds.

But many state and local officials didn't wait for a dictum from the feds. Several states green-lighted their own Web sites focused on results from the stimulus, as well as complementary sites that streamed real-time data onto the Web. And a few jurisdictions -- led by Washington, D.C., (under Kundra's leadership) and New York City -- went as far as hosting contests for programmers who were asked to "mash up" government data within lightweight software applications so citizens could access information conveniently on desktops and mobile devices.

Several municipalities integrated more transparency into public services. For example, the city and county government of San Francisco began accepting 311 requests for service from Twitter, the Web-based microblogging service that became a pop culture phenomenon in 2009. San Francisco joined the growing ranks of governments that now give citizens the ability to track the progress of service requests via the Web -- a far cry from the old days when citizens phoned their local government, and then were left hoping that a city employee would fix a pothole or clean up roadside trash.

Citizens and watchdogs moved quickly to utilize the new wealth of information on the stimulus and the real-time data on government services. Perhaps the most prominent example during the year was a privately run Web site called Recovery.org, which during the early days of the stimulus was thought to be a better developed and easier to use version of Recovery.gov, the official site for the stimulus. Of course, Recovery.org never would have existed had the federal government not made data public in the first place.

But, again, the push for transparency was about much more than the stimulus. The Obama administration wanted to permanently change government culture so that openness, rather than secrecy, is its default mode.

Federal officials went so far as to move the internal code of WhiteHouse.gov to open source. The U.S. government's highest-profile Web site literally is open for everyone to see. It's yet another indicator that transparency, in its many forms, might be here to stay.

Matt Williams Associate Editor