This is the third installment in a series of columns by Recovery Board Chairman Earl Devaney on the lessons he has learned from his work on the Recovery Board, which oversees the Recovery program.
For openers, let me say it succinctly:
- Spending data can be collected directly from recipients of federal funds with a high degree of accuracy.
- Spending data can be quickly reviewed for quality and then displayed in various ways to achieve extraordinary transparency.
I reached these conclusions, and so have other members of the Recovery Board, after spending nearly two years reviewing spending reports submitted by recipients of Recovery Act funds. It is clear that the vast majority of recipients—meaning state governments, non-profits, universities and private businesses—are submitting accurate reports on how they are using stimulus money.
Of course, as with any new program, there were a few bumps in the early days of the Recovery reporting program when some recipients struggled to deal with filling out their initial data reports. By and large, however, they have demonstrated that they are committed to doing things correctly.
Looking back, the Board and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) did a lot of brainstorming before developing the reporting form used by recipients. The form contains a series of questions that are relatively easy to answer. Indeed, the number of calls to the Board from recipients expressing difficulty in reporting is now down to a trickle.
The reports, filed quarterly, are loaded with information: The name of the recipient, address, location of the project, congressional district, zip code, amount expended, the identity of subcontractors, number of jobs, and so on.
Since this program began, there have been eight reporting periods. The Board and its staff have seen dramatic improvement in recipient reporting throughout the process, with the number of reporting errors and non-compliers falling significantly.
Taxpayers, of course, are the winners. In the normal course of business, government bureaucrats comb through spending data for many months before making it public. But in the Recovery program, taxpayers are getting real-time data directly from recipients. Under OMB guidance, we cannot change the data in any way. What you see on Recovery.gov is precisely what recipients submit to the Board.
In short, taxpayers are getting the transparency and accountability they deserve for the projects and programs they have funded across the nation. All they need to do is turn on a computer or mobile device and access the maps, charts and other data features displayed on Recovery.gov.
Let’s take a look at why the reporting program has been so successful.
Simply stated, recipients are accountable for how they report the use of stimulus funds. Because they report directly to the Board, they have ownership of the data they report. Accountability is clear. They can’t blame the government if they file inaccurate or misleading reports.
The system works this way: Each quarter, recipients submit reports to FederalReporting.gov, a password-protected website managed by the Board. Agencies and recipients each have a fixed number of days to review those reports before the data is posted on the Board’s public website, Recovery.gov. To ensure the best possible data, recipients can make changes in the reports under a quality control process implemented by the Board. The corrected data is then posted every two weeks on Recovery.gov.
Under this system, the 28 federal agencies that distribute Recovery funds are also looking for errors. The agencies can’t correct the reports—only recipients can make changes—but they notify recipients when they come across errors or incomplete reports.
Finally, the Board has displayed recipient data in various formats on Recovery.gov to ensure the information is easily accessible. Zip code searches and state-of-the-art maps allow for detailed tracking of spending. The Download Center contains spreadsheets of all data in XML, CSV and XLS files. More sophisticated visitors can use the Developer Center to grab data and embed the information on a web page, blog, or social media site. And for those increasingly on the run, as most of us are today, there are iPhone and iPad applications that provide quick and easy access to all the maps and data.
Recovery.gov remains a work in progress. From Day One, the Board and I have insisted on developing enhancements that continually improve the site so that visitors better understand the Recovery program and how tax dollars are being used. We are dedicated to fulfilling that mission.