December 15, 2009 By Matt Williams
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.
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
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