It’s been nearly three years since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was signed into law. Even before it received the president’s signature, ARRA ignited controversy. Some said ARRA was an overwrought federal invasion of the private sector while others argued that the act wouldn’t do nearly enough. Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what ARRA was going to do and what it has actually done. To find out what impact ARRA had on state IT, Government Technology asked Maryland CIO Elliot Schlanger, Illinois CIO Sean Vinck, Massachusetts CIO John Letchford and Massachusetts Recovery & Reinvestment Office Director Jeffrey Simon to talk about what they thought ARRA did — or didn’t do.

What is your assessment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act? Did it achieve what it was intended to?

SV: ARRA provided much needed fiscal stimulus to the American economy at a time of great instability. Without the investments in infrastructure, education, economic development and health care that ARRA provided, the economic crisis of the last several years would have been worse in the United States. Like all ambitious projects, we will no doubt find ways that we could have done some things better. On the other hand, the government adopted new standards of transparency and accountability that were historically unprecedented. That is a great step.

ES: No doubt the ARRA was an urgent and expedient bipartisan response to an economic crisis that a new president was challenged with upon entering office. In simple terms, the act was designed to achieve three rather simple goals: create and/or retain jobs; spur economic activity and invest in long-term growth; and demonstrate the highest levels of accountability and transparency while executing the act. Are we achieving the goals? While not perfect, every state can show much progress against each goal. I suppose, another question that could be asked is this: If the ARRA was not enacted, what might be our economic condition today?

JS: In Massachusetts, just over 91,000 people have received an ARRA-funded paycheck since the program began. The state’s unemployment rate tracked the national rate from about 2003 to its dramatic climb in 2008-2009. While the national rate continued to climb sharply throughout 2009, Massachusetts’ rate peaked in October 2009 at 8.8 percent. The rate then began to steadily decline and is now at 7.3 percent. The ARRA program has been an important part of this decline and of Gov. [Deval] Patrick’s recovery plan. The program had two main goals: First, to stabilize the economy and help the people who were struggling to cope with the most serious downturn since the Great Depression and second, to stimulate economic activity that would employ people on worthwhile programs and projects. In Massachusetts, both of these objectives had very positive effects.

Has your agency seen any direct benefits? If so, what were they?

JL: While the commonwealth’s Information Technology Division did not directly benefit from ARRA funding, I can highlight two positive outcomes for our agency, thanks to ARRA. One is that this program required an evolutionary increase in transparency for residents, which enabled us to implement appropriate technologies to meet that and similar needs. The second is that ARRA’s focus on health IT has increased the level of support for something that is very high up on our agency’s — and the governor’s — list of priorities, which is great.

ES: Specifically concerning the state of Maryland Department of Information Technology, under the leadership of Gov. [Martin] O’Malley, a team of federal, state and local elected officials, and voluminous support from a plethora of vested parties, the state secured a major grant under the ARRA Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. The $115 million grant, supplemented by a $43 million match from the state and local jurisdictions, is allowing the construction of approximately 1,300 miles of fiber-optic cabling that will span all Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City, covering 9,800 square miles inclusive of urban, suburban and rural communities. More than 1,000 community anchors will be directly connected including schools, police and emergency centers, government and community support centers, libraries, community colleges and universities. The ARRA-supported project fosters economic development, improves public safety interoperability and interconnects local and state government networks. Also, to support commercial provider “last mile” build-out to homes and businesses, the network passes near approximately 2.2 million households, 5.6 million residents and 96,000 businesses. Finally, the project itself will create more than 800 jobs.

SV: The state of Illinois benefited enormously in transportation, economic development, health care and education. Implementing ARRA required many agencies to upgrade their reporting and accountability systems. One benefit was some improvement to technology in some agencies.