Transparency for stimulus spending remains a work in progress

The much-touted online transparency promised by the Obama administration to allow public tracking of federal stimulus funds might still be months away, as agencies puzzle over the depth of detail required in their weekly reports and Web site architects scramble to design a user-friendly database to handle an ocean of information.

Good-government groups and administration officials envision the Recovery.gov Web site as a clearinghouse that lets citizens monitor the dollar-by-dollar effects of economic recovery funds in their hometowns. But with a variety of details in weekly reports from federal agencies, duplicative or hard-to-decipher data sources and reporting requirements that critics say are too shallow to offer meaningful oversight at the local level, the site so far offers little help to watchdogs hoping to map the flow of $787 billion in funds.

"We are waiting for Recovery.gov to post useful data, and that has just not happened yet," said Jerry Brito of the George Mason University Mercatus Center. Brito is a co-founder of independent site StimulusWatch.org, which allows citizens to rate the merit of potential stimulus projects in their communities.

White House accountability czars at the Office of Management and Budget and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board share Brito's goal, but they say that supplying the public with the tools to become stimulus watchdogs will take months. Building a database on Recovery.gov with that level of transparency, stimulus overseer Earl Devaney told a group of state recovery representatives Thursday, could take over a year.

A spokeswoman for Devaney said planners are in the initial stages of mapping out the architecture of the expensive and gigantic database, and the cash to pay for it has yet to be transferred to the board's coffers. Creating the site will cost the vast majority of Devaney's $84 million budget, she added.

Without a central infrastructure, the first two rounds of weekly data submitted by federal agencies to Recovery.gov offer little information for curious money trackers.

The site provides links to spreadsheets filed by federal agencies since reporting began March 3. But most merely list lump sums allocated under the Recovery Act to agency programs, with little new information other than the Treasury account codes that have been assigned to the cash pools.

"In a case like this, you have to think through what information you want and how you want to present it," said Ken Mead, the Transportation Department inspector general from 1997 to 2006. "It's apparent from these reports that they're all over the map."

A quick perusal of agency Web sites, he says, shows wild inconsistencies in the detail of descriptions provided and only the broadest calculations of how appropriated and obligated funds will be divided within agencies.

The most recent weekly report from the Veterans Affairs Department, for example, provides no descriptions of the eight agency programs receiving the funds, listing each one only by its four-digit Treasury account number. That report from the VA, which received over $1.4 billion in stimulus funds, lists only one major action taken to date: submitting its spending plans to OMB.

OMB has promised that more reporting guidelines will be established in coming weeks for agencies' monthly reports, which will offer much more rigorous tracking of individual tranches of disbursed cash. Agencies eventually will be required to provide data feeds outlining the details of their grants, loans, and loan guarantees. Submission deadlines for both sets of information do not begin until May.

Agency financial administrators, OMB officials and congressional oversight aides agree that, with stimulus money being readied to go out the door, it is too early for much hard information to be available on how dollars will be spent. "The initial steps already visible at Recovery Act are the beginning, not the culmination, of our transparency efforts," said OMB spokesman Tom Gavin. "The funds are really just starting to move to the public, and more details will be available as the investments are made."

But concern is growing among some lawmakers and watchdog groups that reporting mandates may not require the depth needed to meaningfully track federal dollars once they are in the hands of state and local grantees.

Requirements say "prime non-Federal recipients" of federal dollars must submit a wealth of information about how money is spent, but this applies only to principal grantees and contractors receiving the cash. If a state receiving federal aid gives a $5 million grant to a town for a bridge repair, for example, the town would not be required to report how it spent the cash or which contractor and subcontractors did the bridge work.

"That contractor could be the mayor's brother," says Craig Jennings, a fiscal policy analyst at OMB Watch, a nonprofit group dedicated to oversight of the president's budget office. "We would never know."

House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa echoed Jennings' criticism in a letter to Devaney Thursday, saying the OMB requirements represent a "backing away from the President's commitment to the American people by directing agencies to withhold key data that should be disclosed to the American public."

Procurement experts point out that stricter reporting requirements risk exposing proprietary information that would require reports receive labor-intensive redaction, and transparency advocates privately acknowledge that rounding up spending data from multiple degrees of sub-awardees may not be feasible.

Oversight of subcontractors, they say, will largely fall to journalists and citizens manipulating Recovery.gov data on local projects.

That will be possible through sites like StimulusWatch, which Brito hopes will become an interactive bonanza for stimulus trackers to critique the use of government funds for projects as localized as repair to an elementary school down the street.

Brito calls it a great idea. "But in order to do that," he said, "we just need the data."

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