Recovery Act contracting data set for release

The public this week will get its most in-depth look to date at the contracts federal agencies have signed using billions in Recovery Act funding.

On Oct. 15, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board will post on Recovery.gov data from companies and other entities that received direct stimulus contracts from federal agencies. Grants, state-issued contracts, loans and other forms of assistance will be available for viewing on Oct. 30.

"In this first reporting period, you will find a lot of data essential to your understanding of Recovery spending," Board Chairman Earl Devaney wrote in a Tuesday column on Recovery.gov. "You will see, firsthand, what your state and local governments are doing with Recovery money, and which contractors are benefitting from this program."

According to data already available on the Federal Procurement Data System Next-Generation Web site, agencies have obligated more than $16 billion in Recovery Act contracts. The government's primary public contracting database, USASpending.gov, which is updated less frequently than FPDS NG, lists the contract total at $6.2 billion. It is unclear which figure better represents the numbers that will be available on Recovery.gov later this week.

Regardless, "This is really only one small slice of the data," said Gary Bass, executive director of the nonprofit OMB Watch, during a conference call on Tuesday. Grants and loans represent a significantly larger percentage of spending.

Other major data sets, such as tax breaks and entitlement spending, account for about two-thirds of all Recovery Act spending. The identities of tax break and entitlement spending recipients, however, will not be made public.

Starting Thursday, visitors to Recovery.gov will be able to view the identity of the contract recipient, place of performance, agency that made the award, and date and amount of the award, Board spokesman Ed Pound said. Certain large companies also must report the names and compensation of their five highest-paid employees. The public will be able to download the data to examine it further, Pound said.

The public, however, will not be able to filter the data by contract type -- fixed-price, cost-plus or time-and-materials -- or to separate small and large business contracts.

The Recovery Act requires all recipients of stimulus funds to report on their spending between Oct. 1 and Oct. 10 through FederalReporting.gov, the central data collection system that will feed information into Recovery.gov.

On Friday, the board announced it had provided a 10-day grace period for late filers to submit their required quarterly report. These entities must explain their reasons for delayed reporting, and they will be identified on Recovery.gov "as late filers." Pound estimated "tens of thousands" of entities had registered on FederalReporting.gov.

The board extended the deadline to accommodate states that are centralizing their recipient spending, Pound said. In these instances, companies, cities and municipalities that are receiving stimulus funds will submit all the required data to their state, which will then send it to FederalReporting.gov. At least one-third of the states, including California, have chosen to submit data in this method.

Recipients of Recovery funds can review and make necessary changes to the data from Oct. 11 through Oct. 29. Agencies can point out errors or omissions but only recipients can change their reports. The board will track revisions and make that information available shortly after Nov. 1.

But Devaney noted that even with many eyes reviewing the data, the spending reports will not be perfect.

"Indeed, there will be errors and omissions in some reports, and still other recipients may not even bother to submit information," he said. "Given our focus on accountability and transparency, we are urging federal agencies to work closely with recipients to correct any problems in their reports. … Over time, with so much public scrutiny of the data, we expect improved reporting; the number of recipients will grow and more information will be displayed on Recovery.gov."

Watchdogs expressed concern about the quality and comprehensiveness of the recipient data. The law requires prime recipients and first-tier subrecipients to report to FederalReporting.gov. Subrecipients that issue funds directly to a vendor also must report spending. Subsequent pass-throughs to a second subrecipient -- for example a town or municipality -- would be exempt from the requirements.

"Once that money changes hands more than two times, we don't know what happens to it," said Craig Jennings, senior federal fiscal policy analyst with OMB Watch, which is a member of the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery.

Author and construction industry expert Barry LePatner said companies that bid exceedingly low on stimulus contracts will compensate by attempting to run up the allowable costs and price of their projects. If they are not successful then projects might not be completed or the state or federal government will end up intervening.

"They have set up a construct for almost assured failure," he said. "I expect a lot of roads and bridges to nowhere."

LePatner said without an itemized breakdown of how companies are spending Recovery funds, taxpayers will not get a full picture of how projects are progressing. This type of detailed data is not required from recipients.

"I don't think the numbers will disclose much substance," LePatner said.

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