In government, there’s a quiet revolution afoot. Maybe you’ve noticed, maybe not, but you should want to read this because the change is all about your tax dollars and government accountability.
Congress created the $787 billion economic stimulus program two years ago, calling it the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Recovery Board, which I chair, was created to ‘’foster greater accountability and transparency’’ in how stimulus funds were used. The idea: Transparency would drive accountability to ensure your hard-earned tax dollars were used prudently.
We think we have done the job but you should decide the issue, and one way would be to explore Recovery.gov and figure out whether you are getting enough bang for the buck. Let me give you some facts.
For so many years, information on program spending was buried in the bowels of government. If you were lucky enough to find your way to a nondescript basement office where government data was kept or obtained information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), you might have figured out what the feds were actually doing with your money. I am not exaggerating. Just ask any news reporter or watchdog group that has filed an FOIA request and waited patiently, perhaps for a year or longer, before the government provided the information.
There’s no need to file an FOIA request to get what you want from the Recovery Board. Just comb through this website and you’ll find plenty of information on spending and award data from recipients of stimulus funds and federal agencies that have issued contracts, grants, and loans. Do you want details on projects in your neighborhood, zip code, county or state? That information is easy to find, on interactive maps and data spreadsheets. There’s much more, as even a cursory review of Recovery.gov would demonstrate.
Is Recovery.gov perfect? The short answer is, no. Even with all of our innovations, taxpayers would be better served if we could track the money even more thoroughly. Under guidance written by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), we can trace funds to the prime and sub-recipients but in most instances, we can’t go deeper.
Here is an example of the problem: Let’s say a federal agency provides a Recovery grant to a state government, the prime recipient, and the government then distributes the funds to a city council for a local road project. The city council then sends some of that money to a contracting company. We can trace the money to those three recipients but the trails ends there. If the contractor retains a subcontractor with ties to the mayor’s brother, for instance, we have no way of knowing that unless we are tipped off.
Long time advocates of government transparency and accountability recognize the problem and want improvements in the recipient reporting system. At a recent meeting focused on the Recovery program, Gary Bass, the founder and executive director of the non-profit OMB Watch, said that reporting required under the Recovery Act was an impressive step forward for the government—“a game changer,” he called it.
Bass went on to say, in blunt language, that the Recovery Board needed to do even more. “You still do not have enough information about the ultimate recipient,’’ he said. “You need deeper reporting.’’
More data, clearly presented, will give the public a better sense of what is going on in this massive government program. From an accountability standpoint, the Recovery Board and its federal, state, and local oversight partners will have a better chance at catching those who steal or misuse tax dollars.
Self-satisfaction is the refuge of the arrogant. Those of us on the Recovery Board are not satisfied. We want to provide more recipient information on this website, and we are constantly advocating that position inside the government. Indeed, some argue, this kind of detailed information should be available for all government spending programs in an electronic and timely fashion. We agree, and you will hear more from me on this issue in the coming months.