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With a program as multi-faceted, multi-layered and politically explosive as the Recovery Act, a major challenge for government officials has been to present information in a way that is interesting to citizens, clear, informative, timely and balanced. As if that weren't enough, government transparency should go far beyond reporting the number of jobs created, dollars spent, projects launched, etc. It also should let citizens know what they're getting for the money spent.
We've looked at a lot of state websites and have been particularly impressed at the ways Pennsylvania has tackled these multiple tasks. “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. An interested citizen can see what we’ve spent, where we’ve spent it and the progress we’re making over time,” says Ronald Naples, chair of the Governor’s Working Group for Stimulus Accountability and chief accountability officer.
There are a number of aspects of the Pennsylvania Recovery Act website that stand out. Jobs and spending data are updated regularly; the FAQs are comprehensive; Recovery Act contracts are easy to search for and view; and interested citizens can find information about the Oversight Commission hearings that are held in different parts of the state on a quarterly basis.
We were also particularly impressed by an extremely readable 14-page document that’s billed as a “Citizen’s Update”. This quarterly progress report provides job statistics at the same time that the Commonwealth sends them into the federal government – about three weeks before they’re actually available on the federal Recovery.gov website. The report includes many graphic images that show the flow of the money. It also communicates that the stimulus was about a great deal more than just job creation, tying Pennsylvania spending to four other stimulus goals that were spelled out in the original Recovery Act.
Pennsylvania does one of the better jobs we’ve seen of looking at what the stimulus is accomplishing. Under the "Accountability & Transparency" tab at the top of the website, there's a link for Performance & Outcomes. Measures are reported for nine areas of spending. A couple of examples: Under energy programs, Pennsylvania is tracking energy use avoided in kilowatt hours and will track fuel savings in gallons, tons or feet of fossil fuels. In its highway projects, it not only tracks the reduction in roads rated poor or fair, but also the percent of contracts going to disadvantaged businesses.
We have some quibbles with the performance reporting. We’d like to see more narrative and context for the information given, as well as links to research that backs up the claims on outcomes achieved. Says Naples: “It can always be better. That’s true in most things in life, but we tried not to make the perfect the enemy of good. We’d like to have more outcome rather than process measures and we’d like to make them as relevant as possible to reflect what the value is on the investment. The outcome measures are going to take some time to evolve, but it was important to get started.”