Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Archive for September, 2009

Tracking the stimulus money

Posted by David Kassel on September 24, 2009

In the name of transparency and accountability, a lot of people are putting a lot of effort into tracking the federal economic stimulus money now flowing into cities and states.

The question is how effective and valuable are the results of those tracking efforts?  Are the federal government and the states getting a real handle on the funding under the economic stimulus bill, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009?

In May, the Washington Post reported that the White House supported tracking site, Recovery.gov, was providing little useful information about where the money was going under the program.  Moreover, the reporting requirements on public agencies didn’t extend to the contractor level, according to The Post.   The site now lists contractors, but the results, as noted below, may not always be accurate.

On the other hand, Recovery.org, a privately operated site by Onvia, posts stimulus-related, government bid solicitations, which identify specific stimulus projects in individual states.  This appears to involve much more detailed information than that available on the government site.  To be fair, Onvia, as the Post pointed out, has spent more than a decade developing its search technology.  Recovery.gov is only been around for a few months.

The first quarterly reports from the states are due October 1, and will be posted on the government site.  Under the Recovery Act, states and localities must report quarterly on the use of the funds and provide estimates of the number of jobs created and retained.

I went onto both the federal and the private-sector websites and tried to see for myself what was going on.  I chose my home state of Massachusetts.

As of September 18, 60 stimulus contracts in Massachusetts were displayed on the government’s Recovery.gov website.   I couldn’t find a total for the value of all of those contracts.  In at least one case, something seemed to be wrong.   According to the information displayed on the site, the Columbia Construction Company of Reading, MA, had recieved a $57 million contract from the General Services Administration for a roof replacement of a Veterans Affairs Center in Philadelphia, PA.  The project location was listed as Andover, MA.  Why would a roof replacement of a federal building in Philadelphia be listed as a Massachusetts project and why would it cost that much?

I went to the private-sector, Recovery.org site.

As of September 20, Recovery.org listed 537 projects totalling $1.8 billion in Massachusetts.  There was no listing here of the Philadelphia roof replacement project under Andover, Massachusetts.  However, this site did list a $57 million project to modernize the IRS Service Center in Andover, MA.  The Columbia Construction Company was listed there as the winner of the contract.  That made more sense.  

Recovery.org also lists projects voted by viewers as the most and least worthwhile, and most expensive.  For instance, the most expensive project listed on September 20 was a $270 million project to build a tunnel and building in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in California.  The most unnecessary project was a tiny $7,000 project to purchase solar bus stop signage in Weirton, W. VA.    The second most unnecessary project was a $100 million task order contract to pre-selected contractors to support construction activities in the National Park Service in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Meanwhile, there are other problems in tracking the federal stimulus money that have nothing to do with these two websites.   One of them is that the Single Audit mechanism for state and local governments doesn’t work well in assessing the economic stimulus program, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Single Audit Act requires state and local governments and nonprofit organizations receiving more than $500,000 in federal awards in a year to obtain an audit.   The GAO reported that Single Audit reporting deadline is too late to provide audit results in time for the audited entity to take action on deficiencies noted in Recovery Act programs.  The GAO recommended that Congress put more money into Single Audit activities.

Clearly, close and accurate tracking of this funding is needed, not only to satisfy the public that the money is being used for the right things, but to help stem the inevitable waste, fraud and abuse.  As of September 2, according to the GAO, the agency had received 80 allegations of fraud and other ethics issues related to stimulus funding that were considered credible enough to warrant further review. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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On polls about government and health care

Posted by David Kassel on September 8, 2009

The trouble with basing political decisions on polls, as many elected officials and politicians do these days, is that most polls don’t seem to be very good at measuring people’s real opinions. 

The reason may be that those opinions are likely to be mixed–even among the same people on the same issues.

For instance, a New York Times  poll in July found “a nation torn by conflicting impulses and confusion”  about health care reform.  In the poll, 75 percent of the respondents said they were concerned health care costs would skyrocket if the government didn’t step in to provide a health care system for all Americans.  Yet the same poll also found that 77 percent were concerned costs would go up if government did create such as system.

How do you base political and policy decisions on results like that?

That same confusion and ambivalence appears to characterize American’s feelings about government in general.   PA Times, a monthly publication of the American Society for Public Administration,  reported that 79 percent of Americans say they would encourage young people to work for the federal government.  This finding came out of a George Washington University Battleground Poll, conducted in July.  

Yet, according to the same poll, only 21 percent of the respondents had a great deal or a lot of confidence in federal civilian employees.

But before getting too discouraged about government, big business, newspapers, and HMOs fared as badly or worse in a similar poll conducted by Gallup in June, according to PA Times.  In June, Gallup asked a similar question about confidence in employees of several professions.  Among the following institutions, the level of confidence held by respondants was:

Newspapers (25 percent), TV news (23 percent), banks (22 percent), organized labor (19 percent), HMOs (18 percent), Congress (17 percent), and big business (16 percent).  On the other end of the spectrum were the military (82 percent), small business (67 percent), the police (59 percent), and organized religion (52 percent).

The question Gallup asked was:  “Thinking about the civilian employees of the federal government and your view of them, would you say that you have a great deal of confidence, a lot of confidence, some confidence, or very little confidence in these employees?”   The George Washington University poll excluded the military, which tends to draw higher public confidence than other institutions.

This type of question and the responses to it illustrate some inherent weaknesses in polling.  People’s feelings and beliefs about these issues are clearly mixed.  They are based on presumptions that may not always be examined or questioned.  On the one hand, the George Washington University poll shows that people have little confidence in the federal workforce.  Yet, they endorse it as a profession for young people.

Similarly, polls, such as the Gallup poll, show people hold Congress in the lowest esteem among practially all institutions.  Yet, late last month, we saw an  outpouring of public emotion at the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy,  albeit a famous and unusually productive member of Congress.

Like statistics, polls can be made to say just about whatever you want them to.  We should pay far less attention to them than we do.

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