Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 - 5:53
Saturday, October 2, 2010 - 08:49
A new performance section debuts on Alabama's website, Stimulus.Alabama.gov
Leaders in Alabama thought it was important to take steps to make sure their Recovery Act website provides "a more comprehensive view of results-based information.”
These kind of efforts are complicated and time consuming. And, in general, the state is still more oriented toward counting outputs than outcomes and many of the areas measured are still dominated by notations that the information is TBD (To Be Determined). But although Alabama's website is clearly a work in progress, it has certainly experienced great improvement.
The presentation of the new performance reports are clear and there are some areas – like workforce investment – in which a citizen can already go in and see what Recovery Act money has bought them. For example, the section on workforce investment shows that in FY2010, 62 percent of the people in Recovery Act funded training programs entered employment, that the employee retention rate was nearly 78 percent and that on average, the participants earned $11,093 over a six-month period.
Alabama officials assure us that this is just the beginning of a concentrated effort to show how the stimulus has affected the state. Unlike bigger and wealthier states, Alabama managers were “hamstrung by the lack of resources and technology,” in the words of John Barganier, finance director in the executive planning office. The state also is quite decentralized, which further complicates the task of drawing information from some individual agencies. “You know as well as I do, these numbers are as good as the people who give them to us,” says Anne Elizabeth McGowin, Alabama Recovery Coordinator. “I wouldn’t swear by these numbers, but it gives the reader a much better picture of the impact on different programs.”
One of our favorite parts of the new Alabama performance reports is the state’s effort to show Recovery Act spending in context of other state spending. Funding for every program is divided into non-ARRA and ARRA dollars and in each case, readers can quickly see the percentage that the stimulus represents of total spending. As a result, a citizen who looks at the weatherization report can see that in fiscal year 2009, the state’s own weatherization funding amounted to $3.2 million and the Recovery Act added another $1.5 million or 32 percent of the total. In FY2010, stimulus-related weatherization funding jumped to $15.3 million, the state pulled back a bit on its own funding and ARRA accounted for 90 percent of the total. In FY2010, the state weatherized 906 houses, which was entirely attributable to the Recovery Act.
A very useful next step for Alabama would be to add some narrative to these pages, as careful readers of these reports will come up with lots and lots of questions.
Why, for example, was the state able to weatherize 725 homes with $2.2 million in state funding in 2008 and only 906 homes with $15.3 million in stimulus funding two years later? Or why does the Violence Against Women program show no Recovery Act spending in FY2009 and yet attribute 5,007 victim served (38% of the total) as the ARRA Result for that year.
We suspect that there are good logical explanations for these and other anomalies and it would serve the state well if citizens could see what they were. A bit of narrative would also be very useful to explain other smaller differences in program performance. For example, we’d be curious to know why 77 percent of the participants in Alabama’s regular Workforce Investment Act training activities entered employment in FY2008 – a much higher percentage than the 62 percent of participants who entered employment as a result of the stimulus-funded program two years later. Perhaps a different population was being served, or maybe it was the weakness in the economy. Whatever, it would be informative to more clearly know the suspected reasons behind the numbers.
These aren't just quibbles, but in the context of the improvements Alabama has made, they're really not the story. At heart, we want to applaud Alabama for its efforts and look forward to improvements in the website going forward.