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Stimulus Act Will Bring Long-Term Change in Accountability (Opinion)

Transparency and accountability are key in using economic stimulus funds.

by / June 19, 2009

The $787 billion federal economic stimulus package -- is new as government programs go, but it proves an old adage: There's nothing as permanent as a temporary program.

At 1,100 eye-straining pages, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) hit the table with an impressive thud. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), working with the 15 federal agencies tapped to serve as administrators in their respective areas of expertise, has followed up with a steady stream of guidance and regulation.

While the feds avoided the mistake of creating a whole new bureaucracy in favor of using existing agencies, programs and funding streams, there's no lack of complexity to ARRA. After all, there are 215 funding lines and 86 existing grant programs involved in implementing the act, all of which are being re-created in whole or in part for the stimulus.

By definition, there is urgency to stimulus. It exists to kick-start a stalled economy. But the same White House that brought us the stimulus is also promising to spend it quickly, wisely and transparently -- qualities that too often can prove mutually exclusive.

By the end of September, the OMB will issue new contracting guidelines to ensure fair, full and open competition with the likely effect (and unintended consequence) of attenuating the process of moving the money. Assuming you can get to the goods and services you want in a timely fashion, there's a growing recognition that being "shovel ready" is necessary but not sufficient in making strategic investments. Building the modern equivalent of the Hoover Dam is a much different proposition than filling potholes -- both are worthy public goods, but their respective results are categorically different.

The drive for transparency has ratcheted up on reporting requirements for recipients and administrating agencies alike.

As impressive as is, by itself it cannot meet the expectations of ensuring accountability for how this huge amount of money is spent -- and with what result. The widely uneven collection of state-level stimulus or recovery sites may help coordinate funding requests, but will unlikely be of much help on the transparency side of things.

Add to the mix the wild card of federal pre-emption of long-standing local preference rules in public procurement. The Buy American provisions of ARRA, which funds tens of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements, represent the most sweeping U.S. domestic content legislation enacted in decades, and reaches down into the supply chain of public-works projects -- including machinery and embedded technology.

None of this has the feeling of being temporary. Taken together, the stimulus bucket and its attendant transparency in both procurement and performance, appears to be the new order of things.

The challenge for political subdivisions that rely on federal largess is to retool for the stimulus age. The first step is to take the long view by reorienting to see the stimulus model as less of a sprint than a marathon. Endurance will matter more than speed out of the blocks. That trait will become all the more important if speculation about sequels to ARRA is correct.

The second step is to take the broad view by seeing how discrete bits of the stimulus can be combined in creative ways that demonstrate the whole really is more than the sum of the parts. That will necessarily include bringing something to the table, including but not limited to local resources and collaboration agreements that reflect that the proposal is a priority to the requesting communities.

There is life after this recession, and it is not too early to imagine what the future might look like so we can build it. At a time when KFC, the fried chicken chain, is volunteering to patch potholes for free in exchange for advertising rights on the street surface in select cash-strapped cities, perhaps the nearly trillion taxpayer dollars of stimulus spending are better spent on the next generation of big dam projects.

Editor's Note: This column originally appears as FastGov: States of Perpetual Stimulation in the June/July 2009 issue pf Public CIO.


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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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