Open Without Shame

The stimulus program's transparency avoided all but one big scandal.

What has government learned from its experience with the stimulus program of 2009, the largest package of spending and tax-cutting measures ever enacted?

One lesson is that such a large program cannot be popular-at least in its sum if not in its parts. Stimulus has gotten a bad name, partly because of politics but also because its achievements could never be measured in anything but macroeconomic terms-estimates by academic economists that job losses would have been millions more in its absence, even as joblessness remained stuck in the stratosphere.

Another is that government can undertake such a program without sullying its name. Huge amounts of money poured out of agencies with hardly a whiff of fraud or scandal-at least until the Solyndra energy bankruptcy occurred, the exception that proves the rule.

Two actors in the program have offered 17 lessons they think were learned from the stimulus experience. By coincidence one might say that each lesson can cover about $500 million of the $840 billion we ended up spending on the effort.

Seven lessons come from G. Edward DeSeve, a seasoned public servant (and friend) who managed implementation of the program as an assistant to Vice President Joe Biden. And another 10 are from Earl G. Devaney, the Interior Department inspector general who also headed the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.

In a paper published in October by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, DeSeve notes first that "attention from the top matters." President Obama, Biden and top Office of Management and Budget officials pressed agencies to get the money out the door. The pressure worked, though many agencies had a tough time. Weatherization grants, once a small program focused on the Northeast, all of a sudden were going in large amounts to Florida and Arizona, where a new cottage industry of weatherizers had to be developed. In one health service program, staff was reassigned and a special room, with a special lock, was rented to ensure that personal information on grant applicants was kept private. Devaney noted "shovel ready" projects didn't always live up to that description. Many agencies had to process thousands of extra applications without extra money to help with the load.

DeSeve's second lesson, and surely Devaney's main point, is that "transparency minimizes fraud." As Devaney put it during a briefing at the National Academy of Public Administration, the rapid public scrutiny attending agencies' spending decisions meant that there were no grants for "dog Frisbee parks and hummingbird nesting studies."

Many of the 17 lessons expand on transparency, a point of pride for the administration and the Recovery Board. One innovation was the website FederalReporting.gov, which collected information from states and prime and subrecipients of grants and contracts, bypassing slower federal reporting processes. Data was gathered quarterly and displayed within 30 days, with agencies helping with quality control.

The reporting site fed data into Recovery.gov, the main stimulus website, itself a highly innovative endeavor. It adopted geospatial technologies that allow citizens to learn about stimulus projects in their own neighborhoods. The Recovery Board became the first agency to move its technology operations entirely to the cloud, where it was able to screen spending reports through more than a dozen databases looking for possible signals of fraud. Devaney and DeSeve conclude that transparency can cause embarrassment, which in turn produces self-correcting behavior, and that such exposure is a powerful engine of accountability.

With transparency as a force for fraud prevention, agencies and inspectors general, often at odds, had a power-ful incentive to collaborate with each other. That's one lesson for the future, and another, Devaney concludes, is "the federal government desperately needs a uniform, governmentwide alphanumeric numbering system for all awards" to replace disparate agency systems.

With the Recovery Board's charter running out, Obama on July 28 promulgated a new Government Accountability and Transparency Board, expanding its membership outside the old board's IG community, and, oddly, allowing it to meet behind closed doors. But a more promising and permanent step will be taken if Congress enacts the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Especially if Warner succeeds in developing performance metrics for the proposed board, that would send a powerful message to agencies to continue the steady march toward a more open government.

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