Recovery Mode

Recovery Board Chairman Earl Devaney and his team had to find an accurate and public way to account for stimulus spending-and quickly.

Early this year, as the federal government set out to distribute $787 billion in economic stimulus funds, the challenge quickly became one of situational awareness. An unknown number of state and local governments, contractors, universities and nonprofits would be receiving various awards for various programs from various agencies. The General Services Administration even set up a war room, where government and industry officials worked side by side to develop a Web-based system to track where the money is going and how it is being spent.

"It is a takes-a-village kind of approach," says Ed Pound, spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. "We have the best minds working on this. That's what the public expects and deserves."

In January, the White House launched Recovery.gov, a one-stop shop that provides news, guidance, spending reports and financial opportunities related to the stimulus. The site has become the public face of the economic recovery effort. Behind the scenes, however, the real data-gathering happens on FederalReporting.gov. Fund recipients must register with the reporting site and then provide details such as the number of jobs created, projects completed and money spent. The system is an ad hoc lifeline between the government officials out to ensure money is not wasted and the contractors, states and nonprofits being paid under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The board has since left its section of the war room and opened the Recovery Board Operations Center, where analysts soon will start scrutinizing and mashing up the contents of the Federal Reporting.gov database to investigate irregularities.

The Office of Management and Budget required fund recipients to report on their stimulus projects by Oct. 10, which meant the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board had little time to get a reporting system up and running. In fact the board, on Oct. 10, pushed back the deadline 10 days to accommodate recipients who were having difficulty filing. The board originally anticipated federal agencies allocating funds would use their own information technology systems to transmit reports about awards. But that idea quickly faded.

"The first bad sign was Grants.gov needed $5 million to get in shape," says board Chairman Earl Devaney, citing the online doorway to all federal grants. "We can't afford to fix all the broken systems in the federal government to make this work, and the agencies don't have the money to do that."

Devaney decided to build something from scratch-almost. The Environmental Protection Agency already had a good thing going with its reporting system, which tracks regulatory compliance information from states, tribes, local governments and industry. So in mid-June, the board piggybacked onto EPA's contract, awarding a $19 million task order to establish a stimulus reporting site. Within five months, contractor CGI Federal and the board had fashioned the blueprint for an old EPA data exchange into a financial reporting system intended to resuscitate the nation's finances.

"This seems to be historic. This seems to be critical to our country at this time and place. The visibility here is phenomenal," Devaney says. Funding recipients began registering to submit reports through FederalReporting.gov in mid-August so Recovery.gov would be in full swing by the end of October. Still, board members are virtually positive the system will experience problems until the second or third quarter of stimulus reporting. Reports for the second quarter are due Jan. 10, 2010, and for the third quarter in April.

So far, the task has been challenging. The system must be able to accommodate a huge number of recipients and agencies dispensing the funds. Some of the headache has been alleviated by turning to EPA's tried-and-true model, Central Data Exchange, known as CDX. "That really gives us a technical head start," says Kenyon Wells, a vice president of CGI Federal and account manager for the CDX project. "Collecting data is collecting data. Passing data is passing data."

It is the range of stakeholders involved with the stimulus effort that is different, according to Tim Hurlebaus, also a vice president at CGI Federal and account manager for FederalReporting.gov. "This is very broad. The stakeholder [community] on both the federal side and the recipient side is very diverse," he says.

CDX has approximately 180,000 registered participants who report annually, quarterly and sometimes more frequently. Tens of thousands of stimulus recipients will submit reports to Federal Reporting.gov in the first quarter, but "at the end of the day we may have as many as a million [users]," Devaney says.

Racing the Clock

"In a normal situation we might have had two years to conceive this system of [stimulus-tracking] Web sites," Devaney says. "Would this be the way I would do that if I had a couple of years? I'd just be naïve if I thought at some level there wouldn't be some glitches." But by the "second, third quarter that thing is going to be humming," he adds.

Some government transparency groups say repurposing EPA's model sounds appropriate, given the alternatives. "I'd rather gamble on CDX than Grants.gov," says OMB Watch Executive Director Gary D. Bass, who sits on the steering committee of the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, a group of about 30 public interest organizations. The Government Accountability Office in July reported that Grants.gov has systemic weaknesses that put the site's long-term performance at risk.

The FederalReporting.gov project is not a typical 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. government contract. The CGI team has been working late nights, weekends and holidays. "We don't work anywhere near the hours these people work," Devaney says. "Quite frankly, I worry about their health quite frequently. They don't look like they're getting any sleep."

After taking on the project in mid-June, the company coordinated a small pilot with about a dozen stakeholders representing state, federal and commercial interests. Afterward, company officials gathered the participants for a debriefing session. "Since we've got such a short, tight time frame for this, it's important that no time be wasted. It's important that we understand the government's needs," says CGI's Wells.

Public pressure to publish the results as fast as possible created a different kind of struggle for the government. The Recovery Board had promised it would feed the October submissions into online maps, charts, downloadable data sets and other interactive features that same month. There is "the issue of whether or not it is advisable on Oct. 11 to populate a site with a phenomenal amount of in-accurate data," Devaney says.

"This is a lot of data. . . . This is the end of the [fiscal] year for both the federal government and many states. Some of the very people who are closing the books are responsible for entering data on FederalReporting.gov." Stimulus fund recipients will have to fill out up to 74 data fields, according to the board, including 12 that were added just recently.

Devaney urged the Office of Management and Budget, which writes the reporting rules, "to cease and desist. OMB cannot ask for more data," Devaney says. OMB officials say they have no plans to add more data elements right now.

Given the huge amounts of information, the Recovery Board decided citizens and lawmakers, including those skeptical of the stimulus program, would have to wait until Oct. 30 to see most of the results from the private sector and states. This is to ensure decimal points are in the right places and numbers are not transposed. "I'm very reluctant to put up [inaccurate] data if it confuses the public-in the interest of transparency," Devaney says.

"I will applaud him for that and I know he'll take a hit, but I think it's the right thing to do," says the recovery coalition's Bass. "That's realistic. Congress won't be happy about that. The public won't be happy about that."

Data in Bulk

The contractor team and the Recovery Board have been playing constant guessing games since nothing like this has ever been done before. The many variables include the potential strain of massive amounts of data on the system and OMB's reporting requirements. The number of users is expected to increase as more money is doled out for recovery programs, such as health information technology and renewable energy projects.

"There are challenges associated with volume," Devaney says. "We haven't tested it for a million coming in at one time." For the second quarter reports, the government could eliminate a few superfluous reporting requirements and perhaps add a few more, according to the board. "Adding 10 more would seem to be at the point where I would put my foot down with OMB," Devaney says. "Here's the deal. That would cost money." OMB officials said it would be premature to comment on any changes to the process until after assessing the October reporting period.

CGI officials say they are prepared to be flexible if OMB policies continue to evolve. The system was set up to accept information from a single point of contact. But recently, contractors performed some fast footwork to change the system's setup when the board discovered some states were compiling bulk packages of data from all their agency recipients, such as state departments of water resources, transportation and education.

Devaney learned states were doing this on Aug. 19-after registration already had begun-when he flew to Dearborn, Mich., for the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers conference. Since then, the system has been reconfigured to receive centralized reports from state governments representing a variety of programs, as well as reports from individual agency recipients.

"We've now had to do the technical fix. . . . It's that kind of thing that gives me pause about what we're going to get" in future reports, Devaney says. "Some of the rules are changing in the fifth inning of the game, which will make the achievement at the end of the day even more impressive." OMB officials contend that guidance issued on June 22 gave state governments the flexibility to collect and submit data on behalf of multiple agencies and the option was not a change from prior instructions.

The War Room

To understand such nuanced reporting policies, CGI personnel frequently collaborate in person with representatives from a multitude of federal agencies and the Recovery.gov contractor Smartronix Inc. "The government set aside a war room in the GSA building, in this sort of complex of rooms . . . working shoulder to shoulder," Wells says. Supervising the FederalReporting.gov contractors also demands interagency teamwork. While the Recovery Board is responsible for project planning, an EPA official is the contracting officer. Should the schedule slip or costs get out of hand, the board and EPA would work in concert to modify or cancel the order, board spokesman Pound says.

Meanwhile, CGI and Smartronix must coordinate to ensure their systems are compatible. For example, both companies have liaisons at the managerial and technical levels. They also share access to an internal Web site, containing a calendar, graphic models, document libraries, discussion boards and other collaborative tools. The teams have weekly integrated project meetings as well as ad hoc meetings on a variety of topics. The Recovery Board's technical staff attends each company's meetings and each joint session. "They are sort of the bridge between the two," Devaney says. "We're there to make sure the two systems work in harmony."

The subjects covered during the joint meetings include end-to-end testing, which involves transferring the contents of the FederalReporting.gov database to Recovery.gov's online environment. This is the process the two companies and the government will use for updating Recovery.gov each quarter. But some information systems specialists say this method of transferring data will make it hard to synchronize changes to either system. They say the better route would be to exchange the data continuously through Web services that can grab it in the correct format. Smartronix opted not to connect in that manner because Recovery.gov links to other data sources, such as the Federal Procurement Data System and Federal Business Opportunities site, some of which do not use Web services. Officials at the company say they could not expect the other sites to reformat their data just to meet Smartronix's needs.

And Pound is confident in the system the Recovery Board has in place.

High Profile, High Stakes

The FederalReporting.gov site, like many of the administration's financial stabilization projects, is unprecedented. CGI officials draw a loose analogy to the overhaul of Medicare.gov. In 2005, the company worked with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to update the site so Medicare recipients could research the newly mandated prescription drug program. Congress passed a law packed with new resources and benefits for senior citizens, and CGI had to launch an interactive site within a year.

"Back in 2005, legislation came down that had been enacted very, very quickly," says Donna Ryan, a senior vice president who has been with CGI for more than 20 years. As with FederalReporting.gov, CGI was dealing with a high-profile program, a tight turnaround and multiple stakeholders, including advocacy groups, all levels of government, senior citizens and the health care industry. "In a way, we've cut our teeth a little bit on this previous activity," Ryan says.

But the Medicare modernization project suffered from cost overruns and billing errors. Federal auditors identified questionable payments disbursed to 14 contractors, including payments to CGI for Medicare.gov and other IT tasks. According to a November 2007 Government Accountability Office report on Medicare modernization spending, the government paid CGI for travel costs that exceeded limits stipulated in its contracts. CGI subsequently issued a credit to CMS for the overbilling.

In addition, the company billed the agency for about $5,000 in other direct costs and failed to support them with vendor invoices. CGI officials say the discrepancy resulted from an internal transfer of expenditures, and the company still is researching the documents to support the charges. According to CGI officials, CMS was aware of all project activities at all times, and reviewed, approved and paid all invoices; and the company's billings were 100 percent consistent with its contract and federal policies.

To ensure such mistakes do not happen with the FederalReporting.gov project, "we are watching our expenditures very closely," Pound says. "Rest assured the Recovery Board will not be wasting taxpayers' money."

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