What do April 15 and October 10 have in common? They're both federal reporting dates for fiscal accountability. As citizens rush to report their revenue and expenditures in order to determine their taxes, so too will all state governments and thousands of local governments, not-for-profit and private organizations that received federal stimulus dollars under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
October 10 is the first day quarterly reports will be required by the federal government. Stimulus recipients must report how much they received, the amount allocated to projects or activities and details of the projects and their economic impact. Starting on October 11, the public will be able to view reporting data at Recovery.gov.
In most cases, agencies are hard at work compiling their data to complete their tasks before the deadline. On the surface, this may appear to be an orderly process -- but lift the veil and the effort appears overwhelming. There are 50 states with their own transparency systems issuing reports, as well as more than 3,000 county governments and 19,000 incorporated cities, plus thousands of public and private organizations. Picture a baseball catcher squatting behind home plate, preparing to catch balls thrown at him by every pitcher in the league at the same time.
Making Data Meaningful
Many recipients received their funds through their state government and will report back through them. However, many others received their funds directly from the federal agencies and will report directly to them, which makes it challenging for their home states to capture this data. There have been no standards established except that the information is to be received as an Excel spreadsheet or an Extensible Markup Language (XML) document.
Throughout the summer, most state IT departments established their process for reporting. Some purchased software specifically designed for tracking stimulus spending, while others created or tweaked enterprise software they already owned.
In Florida, Don Winstead, special adviser to the governor for the implementation of ARRA, reviewed some of the specialty software but decided to have an internal team build its own application for the state. Winstead wanted to ensure that their system met the federal government's reporting requirements, but he went further to make sure the system provided additional information and flexibility, especially to complement or tie into existing systems used among state agencies. What's more, he had witnessed the work of his competent IT staff during the multiple hurricanes that ripped through Florida in 2004 and their response to building an alternative reporting system for food stamp recipients while he headed the Department for Children and Families.
Winstead's challenge around the reporting process -- and what he hopes his system will solve -- is the state's ability to turn data into meaningful information. "What does it mean to the average citizen?" he asks. That's the key question on the minds of many government officials, and one that will be addressed following publication of the data.
"These dollars are going to be watched closer than any federal dollar that has ever come out of the Treasury," observes Dave Quam, the director of federal relations for the National Governor's Association. He's right. But accounting for stimulus-fund spending is one thing; knowing if it is alleviating our economic crisis and growing unemployment will be something else.