Group asks administration to measure results of stimulus projects

Report argues for metrics to evaluate the Recovery Act’s effect in areas such as public safety and road repair.

Earlier in October, thousands of recipients of federal Recovery Act contracts reported to citizens how their money was being spent. In data published on Oct. 15 on, recipients disclosed the nature of their contracts, where the work was performed and the number of jobs saved or created.

But taxpayers would be hard-pressed to find details in those reports on the outcomes the projects achieved. visitors could not tell, for example, how much a weatherization contract reduced energy use, or whether a project to add police officers to a beat spurred a drop in crime.

A new report from International City/County Management Association, an advocacy group for local governments, suggests that to measure the impact of the economic stimulus, the data collected must reflect the value of public investments through the Recovery Act.

"There is a difference in accounting for where the money went and accounting for whether we received a good return on our investment," said David Ammons, the author of the paper and a professor of public administration and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ammons' proposal also calls for the appointment of a committee of local government executives who would review the set of recommended performance measures. This group would be responsible for modifying the metrics as needed and monitoring the results.

According to Ammons, while the focus now is on job creation and the pace of spending, attention inevitably will shift to the question of whether Recovery Act spending produced lasting benefits.

In a June 22 memorandum, the Office of Management and Budget told Recovery Act recipients they should include in spending reports "a description of the overall purpose and expected out¬puts and outcomes or results of the award and first-tier subaward(s), including significant deliverables and, if appropriate, units of measure. For an award that funds multiple projects or activities, such as a formula block grant, the purpose and outcomes or results may be stated in broad terms."

Because OMB did not define the outcomes it expected recipients to measure, the reporting on results has been spotty. Typical reports in mid-October from recipients of stimulus contracts included project descriptions such as "five new homes" or "road repair and restoration." Rarely did recipients put the projects in a context that would show the need and success of the spending.

Ammons contends that local governments should have been required to at least report on how many people were saved from homelessness or the last time that a particular road had been repaired. "If local governments don't track this information in a more comprehensive manner, they are going to be vulnerable to anecdotes," he said. "There will be positive and negative anecdotes, but without measurements they will all lack context."

The Government Accountability Office also has urged the collection of Recovery Act performance data. In a July report, it recommended that OMB Director Peter R. Orszag "work with federal agencies -- perhaps through senior management councils -- to clarify what new or existing program performance measures ... recipients should collect and report in order to demonstrate the impact of Recovery Act funding"

Ammons does not recommend establishing a uniform set of outcome measures for all projects, but rather targeting common project types. For example, he said local governments undertaking energy efficiency projects should report the change in energy consumption, compared with the same quarter in the previous year, as well as the percentage of vehicles and heavy equipment using alternative fuel.

The report proposes similar evaluation metrics for a host of stimulus project areas, from broadband initiatives to water and sewer upgrades. The data, Ammons said, generally would not be cumbersome to collect or to report. States and municipalities could unilaterally choose to start collecting such data, but a mandate from OMB is the best way to ensure success, he noted.

Data on the aggregated and cumulative benefits of the Recovery Act could be a double-edged sword for state and local governments.

On one hand, Ammons said, the resulting performance data could rebut critics who might contend that stimulus spending has few lasting benefits and that funding went primarily to jobs that do not contribute to society at large. Municipal and county officials also would have a rare opportunity to demonstrate the value of the federal government partnering with local officials to perform these types of projects, he said.

But Ammons acknowledged the added transparency also could be a political embarrassment if inappropriate or poorly targeted spending shows up.