Monday, August 29th, 2011 - 10:09
Governments, generally, are much better at giving out money than they are at figuring out where the money is spent, and how successfully. Progress on this front has certainly been made by cities, counties, states and the federal government, but there’s still a long way to go.
One giant step appears to be in the developmental stages right now. In mid-June, President Obama created a new body, called the Government Accountability and Transparency Board which is intended to “provide strategic direction for enhancing the transparency of Federal spending.” Nearly simultaneously, Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee introduced the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA), which would create an independent agency to track federal spending.
It’s unclear right now how these two ventures might overlap or dovetail, but what is clear is that both of them have roots in Recovery Act requirements, which set clear reporting rules for recipients of stimulus dollars. “Both the executive order and the pending DATA Act both represent the same kind of philosophical shift to a new model of federal spending embodied in Recovery Act,” says Tom Lee, Director of Sunlight Labs, part of the Sunlight Foundation.
“We really see the recovery act as a game changer when it comes to transparency,” says Andrew Seifter, Recovery Act Analyst at Good Jobs First. One of the successes of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – which can certainly be duplicated in these new look-alike efforts – was the placement of a great deal of state-by-state, program by program data in the same place. The alternative, of course, is sending users out hunting down comparative data from large numbers of independent sources.
Beth Blauer, the director of Maryland StateStat makes the apt comparison between this kind of centralization of data and that in which her state is pioneering. For one thing, it allows high level officials to easily see the big picture without having to closely examine each of its component parts. “The governor doesn’t sit in on every state stat session,” she says, “But he is engaged and you know he is behind it. . . We need to see that type of engagement from the President or the Vice President.”
Blauer also pointed to the significance of the Recovery Board in attempting to ensure that there was comparability of data despite the enormous amount of data being accumulated. “The Recovery Board helped call balls and strikes when it came to conflicting guidance.” Of equal importance, and to carry on the metaphor, the Board also made every effort to standardize the strike zone; in this case, standardization of terms and their meanings goes a long way to making comparative data genuinely useful.
In our experience over the years in comparing states, cities and counties, we’ve discovered that unless you clearly define every term in a survey instrument, the responses you get will not be comparable. And even with clear-cut definitions, it’s hard to ensure that reported information is genuinely based on that guidance. You might have thought that with ARRA, for example, the definition of “a job,” would have been pretty clear. Wrong.
When we first became aware of these federal efforts, our immediate instinct was to focus on the positives, pull out the party hats and open a bottle of champagne. Then, we started thinking about the year or so in which we wrote a blog about the ARRA reporting for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. And so we removed our party hats and re-corked the bubbly – at least for the time being.
What lessons stand out if ARRA is used as a model for future federal reporting?
It’s not that we think ARRA is a bad model for further federal work. It’s just that there were a number of lessons learned in the process of producing the ARRA disclosures, and we can’t help but wonder how the executive or legislative branches will deal with them.
Cost of collecting data. Consider, for example, the actual cost of gathering the data. How will the federal government avoid adding additional expenses to federal agencies and the bodies to whom they are allocating cash? This proved to be a major issue with ARRA. Though the legislation provided some administrative funds they simply weren’t sufficient for many of the states to cover their costs. What’s more, these dollars were deducted from the programmatic funds the feds were providing. The killer was that the approach to determining how much money the states were due was so complicated that some states didn’t even ask for those supplemental administrative dollars altogether. ” As Mike Schaub, of Washington state’s Office of Financial Management, explained to us in April 2010, recovering administrative expenses would have meant more paperwork and changing a lot of timekeeping and other practices in his office. “It didn’t seem worth going through that headache,” he told us.
Capacity to collect data. Then, of course, there are questions of capacity. In tough fiscal times, government agencies at all levels are inclined to reduce the number of men and women capable of assembling the kind of data we think the President and members of Congress might want. In ARRA’s case, more than one state complained to us that they were already overloaded with reporting requirements, and just at a time when they had fewer people to fulfill them, they were being asked to do more.
Speed of implementation. Another issue: How will the federal government balance the desire to get this kind of reporting underway quickly, with the need to think the effort through carefully? Decisions made early after the passage of ARRA sometimes created headaches later. While it’s probably impossible to predict all the kinks that might arise, there are times when an extra week in the early stages of this kind of an effort can save many months of time later on.
The role of flexibility. One very positive lesson the federal government can learn from its experiments with ARRA reporting is that flexibility was key to much of its success. Some of the plans made early on with ARRA turned out not to work well, but the Recovery Board was willing to shift gears in a positive way. For example, initially people were expecting the ARRA disclosures to be particularly accurate thanks to the notion of the “Citizen IG” – people logging in, analyzing the spending disclosures and spotting problems. “That approach didn’t work out as well as they hoped,” recalls Lee. “So, they turned to data mining to identify waste, fraud, and abuse.”
In fact, though there was a steady flow of complaints about the quality of the data being reporting about ARRA, as time went on, many of these issues were resolved and the quality of the data improved as the Board used its flexibility to fix problems. (It’s worth noting, too, that some of the bitter complaints that were registered in ARRA’s early days, dissipated as data-reporters in the states got used to the requirements and became more proficient.)
Providing a focal point. Similarly, the very existence of a Board was extremely helpful. “It provided a one-stop shopping place where states could go for technical assistance,” says Seifter. What’s more, putting requirements in clear-cut statutes may have some advantages, but it forfeits the agility a board can demonstrate in the face of unexpected events. Finally, while OMB can tend to be a politically difficult place within which to operate, a board allows for some hope of genuinely independent oversight.
Of course, the mere existence of reporting is only the beginning of the equation. If the data isn’t utilized, it’s pretty much just a waste of gigabytes of perfectly good computer space. As Maryland’s Blauer points out, “The federal government can collect and push out data, but we have to pull it together and use it and talk about good government."
But despite the inherent difficulties in that, “we are at a point where we don’t have a choice,” Blauer says. “We have to use data to drive more coordinated decision making at the federal level.”
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net