answers lead to more questions

by on February 18, 2009 · 8 comments

Yesterday I wrote about some of the questions left open at the launch of Today some of these questions are answered in a memo issued by OMB to all agency heads, giving guidance on implementing the Recover Act (PDF). Among other things, the memo lays out their obligations regarding accountability and transparency.

First, I asked yesterday whether the site being run out of the White House is in fact the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board website mandated by the Act. The answer seems to be that it is. Everything in today’s OMB memo points to being treated as the one and only site to comply with the Act’s requirements. I’m not sure this poses a problem for transparency, but we need to be clear that is not in the Board’s control per se as the Act seems to mandate.

More importantly, however, I asked yesterday how deep reporting would go, and whether reports from stimulus money grantees would be standardized and centrally housed. I wrote:

The problem is that a federal grant could be $10 million to Miami from DoT for roads, and that’s it. There is no requirement that the city then publish its contractors and subcontractors on the Board site. This is a big gap; if the only that must be disclosed on the Board site is the contract or grant award, then the trail will run cold very quickly.

Well, today the OMB helpfully answers me directly:

Reporting requirements only apply to the prime non-Federal recipients of Federal funding, and the subawards (i.e., subgrants, subcontracts, etc.) made by these prime recipients. They do not require each subsequent subrecipient to also report. For instance, a grant could be given from the Federal government to State A, which then gives a subgrant to

City B (within State A), which hires a contractor to construct a bridge, which then hires a subcontractor to supply the concrete. In this case, State A is the prime recipient, and would be required to report the subgrant to City B. However, City B does not have any specific reporting obligations, nor does the contractor or subcontractor for the purposes of reporting for the website. All recipients of Federal funds must continue to comply with existing agency and program reporting requirements.

Like I said yesterday, this gap is a real problem. If one of the things we mean by “accountability” is allowing citizens to help fend of waste, fraud, and abuse, then we must know exactly where the money is going and for what. We need to know more than the fact that New Jersey made a sub-grant to Newark for neighborhood improvement. We need to know whether Newark paid Barone Sanitation and how much.

The upside is that the Recovery Act nevertheless requires grant recipients to report to their sponsoring agency “Detailed information on any subcontracts or subgrants awarded by the recipient[.]” I certainly hope that those reports will be thorough, and that the agencies will publish them in an easy-to-use format. Though I may be reading to much into it, it seems OMB is thinking along the same lines, stating in the memo, “OMB is actively pursuing options for collecting some of this information centrally, focusing first on [subgrant and subcontract information] in the standard formats currently used by Federal agencies to report to”

In the not so good news column, detailed project reporting by grantees may not be standardized or centrally housed at, but scattered in dozens of agency sites in whatever format the grantees submit. Quoth the memo: “OMB is also actively considering how to centralize the collection and reporting of [detailed reporting on projects], though the current preference is that, to the extent possible, this data should be collected and reported through existing program level systems.”

The bottom line is we have no idea right now what will ultimately look like, and how deeply the promised transparency will go. This reflects the rushed nature of the stimulus plan, as well as the inadequacy of existing federal IT systems. Unfortunately, this means that third parties like Stimulus Watch don’t know what sorts of tools they will be able to build to help citizens hold their government accountable, as the president says he wants them to do.

Sunlight Foundation president Ellen Miller blogged yesterday that “For the site to be successful it has to get the fundamentals right — transparency for the data it will house.” I think she’s absolutely right, but in addition to that we have to make sure that the data housed on will be of value. Transparency is only a means to an end, and that end is accountability. By this standard, transparency about press releases, presidential YouTube videos, and estimates of how many jobs the recovery plan is creating, is no transparency at all.

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