Thursday, August 26th, 2010 - 6:33
Thursday, August 19, 2010 - 09:25
The Chief Accountability Officer in Pennsylvania shares his thoughts about the impact of the Recovery Act on government, and his state's push to improve how it measures performance.
Several weeks ago, we wrote about the Pennsylvania Recovery Act website, which does a timely and comprehensive job of communicating the impact of stimulus spending there. In Pennsylvania, Recovery Act leadership is divided between two individuals – one in charge of implementation and the other in charge of accountability. For the latter, Gov. Ed Rendell wanted a person from outside of state government to bring a fresh perspective and a level of independence that would give the public confidence that the state was spending the stimulus wisely. This job "was not intended to be an auditor or compliance type, but rather someone who would bring an 'accountability for results’ perspective," says Ron Naples, who was chosen to fill the position of chief accountability officer.
Recently we talked with Naples (photo at right) about the role of his office, the challenges of reporting on Recovery Act performance, and the impact that the stimulus may have on government in the future.
Q. What’s the role of the accountability office?
Naples: We provide a window to citizens on government spending and what it does for them. Transparency is knowing where the money is spent; accountability is asking what it’s doing for us. Our website is really focused on creating a place where citizens can get a quick look at what’s happening and how it matters to them. Interested citizens can see what we’ve spent, where we’ve spent it and our progress over time.
Although we separated implementation and accountability, we work very closely together. If accountability is going to be effective it has to be part of the implementation process it can’t be looking over someone’s shoulder.
Q. Pennsylvania has done more than many other states in creating performance measures that track the impact of stimulus spending. What would you like these measures to accomplish?
Naples: We’ve tried to focus on the difference between process measures and outcome measures. Government has always been pretty good on process measures. Government hasn’t been very good at the ‘So What?’ questions; the outcome questions. It’s going to take some time to evolve to the level where you’ll really see outcomes, but it was important to get started on this.
Q. What measures would you like to have that you don’t?
Naples: If you were stepping back and starting from the beginning, you might find other things that are useful to measure to show what spending is doing for us. PennDot does a great job of reflecting what they’re doing, but there are additional measures that would be useful. You might want to know whether stimulus spending allows a road to carry a higher volume of traffic or allows a higher average speed or enables a road to carry commercial vehicles that it couldn’t carry before.
It’s the same thing for energy. We’d want to know the kilowatt saving that we’re getting per dollar invested in a certain kind of project. We’d like return on investment measures: how effectively money is being spent that will yield a result in the future.
Q. Is it frustrating that you don’t have that kind of information?
Naples: We tried not to make the perfect the enemy of good. . . We need to evolve the information that we are collecting and respect the fact that people are running 100 miles an hour to do these things and that there is not a lot of free resources.
We don’t pretend that our performance measures are perfect, but that keeps us pushing to get more information.
Q. Do you think the transparency and accountability requirements attached to the stimulus will have a long-term affect on the way government operates?
Naples: These moneys have been subject to such great scrutiny and transparency. We meet with agencies regularly and they‘re tracking spending in a different way than before and thinking about it in a different way than before. The more government focuses on this kind of thing the more it will be inclined to keep going on it.
If you put away the political questions and ask ‘Have we learned how to spend government moneys better?’ The answer is yes.
Q. Has the relationship between the states and the federal government changed?
Naples: I think the relationship has changed, though not for all agencies. But a number of agencies are communicating in a more timely and direct way. There’s a more regular conversation and when there’s a need, there’s better responsiveness. The state understands the needs of the feds better and the feds understands the needs of the state.
Q. What would you have changed about the way the Recovery Act has worked?
Naples: The emphasis has been about trying to get the money spent quickly, but you need the right balance between quickly and effectively.
The notion of doing this quickly needed a little more balance than it had. There’s a focus on getting dollars out the door and a focus on the total spent as opposed to spending the next dollar as effectively as you might. Sometimes, that led to a decision to allocate money in ways that weren’t evaluated to produce the highest return. There was also a tendency to use allocation formulas to distribute money, as opposed to making allocations where there was the greatest need.