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The fuss surrounding the release of the first full report on the use of Recovery Act money last week reminded me of an experience I had in 1980 while working for a congressional oversight committee. We had received an annual report with program data for FY 1977 that I thought was quite useful. I then asked the agency for the FY 1978 and 1979 reports since I thought they would be useful as well. The response was “we just released the 1977 report, the others won’t be available for another two years.”
Shifts at the Federal Level. And now with Recovery.Gov we have program data that are only three months old! And people complain about some likely inaccuracies! The whole Recovery.Gov effort is pretty amazing – a data dump from more than 131,000 sources collected (and reviewed quickly) in a three-week period. The media focused on jobs created, but the real story is the creation of new ways of collecting and reporting large amounts of data and the shift in mind set about how to handle it.
Of course there will be errors (in fact, 21 percent of the reports submitted were revised afterwards). But the shift in mind-set is remarkable. Instead of demanding accuracy and spending months cleaning the data, the emphasis is on timeliness and the expectation that the data will be cleaned as a result of public exposure.
Recovery.Gov head Inspector General Earl Devaney is probably causing shock waves through the audit community with his radical approach (well, radical for auditors) of releasing data that likely has errors before investing weeks of time cleaning it up. In fact, he told Federal News Radio’s Suzanne Kubota, “What we're all seeing, at least following the first reporting period, is not particularly pretty. This data may cause some embarrassments for some agencies and some recipients, but I believe in the long run the embarrassment will encourage self-correcting behavior and make it better in the future.”
Shifts at the State Level. This shift in mind set is creating real pressures to do business differently at the state level, as well. States had to create web-based reporting forms so grant recipients could report their data. According to Computerworld’s Julia King in her article, “States Scramble to Track Federal Stimulus Bucks,” states had to quickly:
These efforts are having broader effects than just Recovery Act reporting. It is changing mind sets and approaches just as importantly as it has been at the federal level.
So as mindsets begin to shift in terms of reporting data quickly and publicly in ways that can be readily understood, it will be interesting to see how long it takes before this becomes the governmentwide norm at all levels of government. It looks like it didn't take long in Maine and Utah!