Posts Tagged ‘Recovery Act’

Recovery Act Tracking

June 23, 2009

recovery1The Washington Post reports today that a new survey shows citizens’ confidence is slipping in their belief that the Recovery Act will boost the economy. 

Whoever was surveyed clearly has not been reading OMB guidance on expectations for how these monies will be tracked!

The complexity of implementing the Recovery Act is becoming clearer over time.  In fact, this was the focus of the feature article in this month’s Government Executive magazine, “Untangling the Recovery.”  In that article, author Robert Brodsky notes: “For the nation’s 2.7 million federal employees, the stimulus plan represents a more personal mission. It is a chance for redemption, to convince the rest of the world that the government still can operate as an efficient and effective management organization.”

Even the Washington Post notes: “Tracking Stimulus Spending May Not Be as Easy as Promised,” and cites how a private website,, is reporting seemingly more complete information, faster.  But this private site doesn’t have to develop guidance for, and document, how many jobs are being saved or created! 

Government Executive’s Katherine Peters notes that tracking the number of jobs will be tricky and “documenting that number may take some fancy footwork.”  Federal Times’ Gregg Carlstrom wrote a couple weeks ago that the Office of Management and Budget would be coming out with guidance last week.  But it was delayed; when circulated to agencies for comment, OMB got more than 700 comments to resolve.  So it was released late yesterday.

The new OMB guidance, dated June 22, finally clarifies the two streams of data (money going out vs. reporting back on dollars spent, project results, and jobs created or saved).  It also creates a distinction between what it does vs. what the Recovery Board does by creating a new, separate website.  The new website,, is to be used by grant, contract, and loan recipients and sub-recipients to report back to the federal government.  The new guidance explains how they are to report information on this new website.  It also promises: “Additional guidance to Federal government contractors will be forthcoming. . . revised guidance on lobbyist communications is also forthcoming.”

The guidance also includes a supplement which, for the first time, lists all 306 federal programs that receive Recovery Act funds and are included in the reporting system.  Some of these are listed here, along with their Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance number, to provide some flavor of the diversity of this effort:

The variety suggests the complexity of reporting back data in a consistent manner.  But the guidance also asks for help:  “The general public and non-governmental entities interested in “good government” can help with data quality, as well, by highlight problems for correction.”  They’ll be able to do this via a feedback mechanism on the soon-to-be re-designed Recovery.Gov website.

UPDATE: Robert Brodsky and Elizabeth Newell at Government Executive, wrote a good summary of the guidance in “Stimulus Guidance Calls for More Detailed Reporting.”


Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients

June 12, 2009
Jeffrey Zeints

Jeffrey Zients

Earlier this week, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a confirmation hearing for Jeff Zients, President Obama’s choice to be the first Chief Performance Officer and deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget.  Who is he and what did he say?

Who is he? Elise Castelli, Federal Times, profiled Zients a few weeks ago:  “From 1999 to 2004, Zients was chairman of Advisory Board, a successful health care consulting firm. From 2000 through 2001, he also was chairman of Advisory Board’s sister company, Corporate Executive Board. Under his leadership, the two management consulting firms went from making millions of dollars to making billions.”  She went on to note that he was seen by his peers as “very analytical” and developed a collaborative business model.  While he’s not had government experience, his approach may well be effective in a government environment.

What did he say? Here is Zient’s formal statement to the committee and some excerpts from media coverage of that hearing:

Rebecca Neal, Federal Times:

  • Zients said he is concerned the government doesn’t have hiring and succession plans in place to replace the large numbers of baby boomers who soon will be eligible to retire.
  • He pointed particularly to the need to expand and strengthen the acquisition workforce.
  • Zients said he will work to return inherently governmental work to civil servants but does not discount the value of contractors in certain fields.
  • Zients said improving federal Web sites and improving transparency is one of his priorities,
  • “I believe leadership starts with putting the right team together and measuring the goals for the organization,” he said.

Max Cacas, WFED Radio:

  • Zients’ management philosophy: “As a CEO, I’ve always focused on three areas: leadership, measurement and a motivated workforce. I believe leadership starts with putting the right team together, and articulating the right goals for the organization. Measurement means translating these goals into an operating plan with clear metrics. A motivated workforce means creating an environment to attract and keep the best talent. I believe these three are the keys to strong performance.”
  • Zients says he favors a more collaborative approach involving all stakeholders to create a better system than PART.
  • He supports President Obama’s call to redefine “inherently governmental work,” to determine what jobs need to be brought back into the federal service and which jobs are more appropriately outsourced to outside contractors.

Elizabeth Newell, Government Executive:

  • Zients “provided a long list of priorities he would address if he becomes deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. These included developing a usable set of performance metrics, improving the effectiveness of government according to those measures, revitalizing the federal workforce, and increasing transparency and accountability across government.”
  • “The test of a performance management system is, is it being used to make important resource allocation and budget decisions,” Zients said during the hearing. “I’m looking forward, if confirmed, to taking a collaborative approach, working with all the stakeholders, to develop a system.”
  • “With Recovery Act reporting from recipients and subrecipients . . . .  we should be planning on a broader deployment of the recovery solution so that transparency of federal spending extends to all taxpayer dollars.”

Recovery Act Implementation: A State-Local View

May 19, 2009

recovery1A small group representing federal, state, and local governments met to discuss challenges associated with implementing the Recovery Act, largely from the perspective of states and localities.  The meeting was co-hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration and the IBM Center.

Background.  The Recovery Act injects about $280 billion into nearly 70 grant programs to states and localities. The majority of this funding is administered by 11 federal departments or agencies.   The Act includes a number of transparency and accountability provisions that include a number of reporting requirements that extend far beyond existing reporting requirements for existing grant, contract, and loan programs.  For example, it requires reporting from sub-grantees and sub-contractors on the number of jobs created.  The Act also requires its funding to be tracked separately from other funding sources, and provides $340 million in oversight monies, including the creation of a series of public websites where funding, projects, and performance information must be posted.  These efforts have led to what some fear as overly-high public expectations as to what can be expected in the first reports on the use of the funds, scheduled for October 10th.

Issues.  The group focused its discussion on three related issues:

  • Complying with the Recovery Act’s transparency, accountability, and reporting requirements
  • Finding ways to achieve measurable and lasting results with the monies spent
  • Managing conflicting expectations

Participants felt that OMB “gets it” in terms of understanding the challenge of implementing the complex reporting requirements.  OMB plans to conduct a dry run of the data collection and reporting system on July 10th in preparation for a statutorily-required first report from states and localities by October 10th.

At the onset of the conversation, it became clear that “no one has the answers” and “we’re not alone.”  They also saw these new reporting requirements as “the future.”  While the Recovery Act is temporary money, largely to be spent by the end of 2011, the new accountability and reporting system being developed to trace Recovery Act funds will likely become a permanent fixture that will be revolutionary in its impact on how government is run and how citizens interact with government.

In addition to reporting financial information, the Recovery Act also requires reporting on the progress of projects, the number of jobs created or saved, and the impact of the projects.  Federal agencies released their agency-wide and program-level spending plans yesterday.

In addition to increased reporting, the Recovery Act created a potential for a series of different expectations in what its results might be.  These tensions come from who is doing the looking and assessing.  For example, there are political tensions, tensions between different policy groups, and tensions between the approaches of different professional groups (IT, procurement, budget, finance, economists, auditors, etc.).  Somewhere in the Recovery Act ecosystem, someone needs to begin to moderate these differences (“break down the silos”), especially if this new transparency and accountability framework becomes the new way of doing business in the future.

Ideas for Going Forward.  Based on some of the insights offered, the group identified several ideas for going forward.  These included:

  • Use the July 10th Dry Run to “level expectations.”  Expectations from the public seem to be very high.  One way to begin managing expectations in terms of what the reporting system can produce is to use the opportunity of the July 10th “dry run” of the financial and performance reporting system to begin to show what might be reasonably expected when the October 10th reporting occurs. The dry run could also be used to identify best practices in data reporting.
  • Create a customer-centric, single face for reporting.  While federal agencies are meeting regularly among themselves, they aren’t necessarily synchronizing their reporting requirements from the perspective of the reporting entity.  Using the Recovery Act as a “burning platform” to force action, can the federal government work with states to come up with a “shared service” platform for financial and performance reporting/data sharing?
  • Create a common set of expectations.  Develop a shared way of seeing a problem.  While there will never be a single “right” answer, there needs to be a forum where stakeholders can communicate their perspectives and come to a shared understanding.
  • Allow different definitions of what constitutes “success.”  Right now, the key “interpreter” of success seems to be the auditors.  Allow multidisciplinary analyses of the data (e.g., universities, professional associations, as well as special interest groups).  “The more lenses, the better.”
  • Create a focal point for sharing best practices.  OMB should foster a cross-agency, and possibly cross-levels of government, communities or data to allow real-time sharing of what works and what does not.  It should then quickly disseminate best practices for replication. 

This dialogue is only one of many similar efforts underway.  In the past several weeks, I understand similar efforts were held by the Association of Government Accountants, the Annie Casey Foundation, and others.  If you attended any of those, it would be interesting to learn if there were similar themes and ideas coming out of those sessions.

Web 2.0: Leading by Example

May 6, 2009

With the White House using new Web 2.0 tools with some fanfare, this is beginning to create the informal “permission” to expand its use in agencies.  It is leadership by example.  While agencies and employees have been increasingly, yet tentatively, piloting Web 2.0 tools over the past two years, adoption of their use seems to be picking up quickly.  In addition, there seems to be a new energy around tackling some of the legal, administrative, and cultural barriers to their use.

This new “permission” is coming in various forms.  For example, one of the Administration’s point persons on this is the new federal CIO, Vivek Kundra.  He testified before a congressional committee last week, saying that government should take advantage of existing online technologies and social networks rather than creating its own.  He noted that by using existing networks, it has the side benefit of making government more transparent to the public and provides the public an opportunity to provide feedback.

And the new Administration is beginning to do this.  Both DOD and NASA are piloting the use of Twitter, an online social network, as a way of getting their messages out to the public.  They are also creating Facebook pages to attract younger audiences.

The White House is joining these networks as well, but it is also sponsoring its own social media efforts.  A month ago, the President participated in an on-line chat session and answered questions that had been developed and voted upon by citizens in advance. While this was a nice symbol, there was a more substantive use piloted last week when the White House and the Recovery Act Transparency Board co-hosted an on-line “national dialogue” to solicit ideas for improving, a website devoted to ensuring transparency in the use of Recovery Act monies.  That effort resulted in more than 4.2 million visits and over 550 ideas for how the website could be made more useful for citizens and government users.

Parallel to these more institutional efforts are efforts by employees themselves to better collaborate and network.  Probably the most prominent of these inside the federal government is the MAX Community, which is largely comprised of about 13,000 budget, finance, and grant professionals.  It has closed membership to government employees only.  Another network is more informal and outside the government.  It is GovLoop, created by a federal employee on his own time, and it now has more than 10,000 members.  This network, sometimes dubbed the “Facebook for Feds,” has a series of vibrant forums on a wide range of topics.  What’s nice about GovLoop is that membership is not closed, and it has a number of state and local government members as well.  Maybe this network will serve as an inspiration for a more formal federal government-sponsored network, or may expand into such a network on its own. . . after all, CIO Kundra is recommending using what’s already there!

Cutting $100 Million

April 21, 2009

In his weekend radio address, President Obama said: “If we’re to going to rebuild our economy on a solid foundation, we need to change the way we do business in Washington. We need to restore the American people’s confidence in their government – that it is on their side, spending their money wisely, to meet their families’ needs.

“That starts with the painstaking work of examining every program, every entitlement, every dollar of government spending and asking ourselves: Is this program really essential? Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth? Can we accomplish our goals more efficiently or effectively some other way? “

. . . . Finally, in the coming weeks, I will be announcing the elimination of dozens of government programs shown to be wasteful or ineffective. In this effort, there will be no sacred cows, and no pet projects. All across America, families are making hard choices, and it’s time their government did the same.

He held his first cabinet meeting yesterday, using the occasion to highlight the need to cut questionable spending.  He  challenged his cabinet secretaries to cut $100 million in unnecessary administrative costs over the next 90 days. He gave some pretty interesting examples of the kinds of cuts they should look for, including reducing the number of conferences held, purchasing office supplies in bulk, etc. He said that this would be “separate and apart from the work that Peter Orszag and the rest of our team are doing to go line by line with the budget and identify programmatic cuts that need to be made.”

He recognized that $100 million was largely symbolic, given that the deficit in March 2009 alone was $192 billion, but it was a first step in restoring citizen confidence in government.

However, doing this smartly will matter.  Administrative costs are generally tight in most agencies and cutting them oftentimes means cutting investments in employee training and travel. This is not uncommon.  But cutting administrative expenses this year could be a real challenge: many agencies receiving Recovery Act funding (for example, the General Services Administration received a 1,130 percent increase in its budget) did not receive sufficient increases in administrative support to handle the influx of work . . . and now they’re being asked to cut their administrative costs.

Caution in Spending Stimulus Monies

March 23, 2009

recovery1The caution flags continue to fly when it comes to moving quickly to spend stimulus funds.  The Wall Street Journal last week noted that:


“States are raising alarm bells over hefty reporting demands they face to fulfill President Barack Obama’s promise that citizens will be able to track online how money from his economic recovery package is spent.


State stimulus czars and auditors aired concerns about the accountability demands during a daylong meeting Thursday at the White House. Among their issues: That the stimulus package’s transparency requirements will compel them to generate detailed spending data that some localities don’t now collect, assemble sweeping audits and parse their budgets to distinguish jobs created by stimulus projects from jobs created by other programs.”


In addition, according to an Associated Press story:


President Barack Obama wants governors to hurry up and begin building bridges and schools to revive the economy. His administration is learning that spending $787 billion as quickly and transparently as promised is no easy task.


States wanting desperately to tap into the new money are having trouble keeping track of the application deadlines and requirements in the 400-page stimulus bill. Governors must sign pledges saying they’ll spend the money appropriately, but the administration is still figuring out what the rules are.


“Well, that’s kind of scary,” said Richard Eckstrom, South Carolina’s comptroller general.


Hanging over all of this are two threats. The first was written into the law, saying that if states miss a deadline or don’t spend the money fast enough, they lose the cash. Vice President Joe Biden delivered the second threat last week, warning that if states misspend the money, “don’t look for any help from the federal government for a long while.”


And the emphasis seems to be on the latter threat.  Last week, the members of the Recovery Act Accountability Board were announced with some fanfare.


Also last week, President Obama released a memo to federal agencies, “Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds,” which directs agencies to use “transparent, merit-based selection criteria” to distribute the funds, use their discretion to avoid funding “imprudent projects,” and ensure transparency in any communications with lobbyists about the use of Recovery Act funds.


The Administration seems to be sending clear signals that the old axiom, “It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” won’t apply to Stimulus spending:

Using Czars and Commissions to Govern

March 20, 2009

Happy first day of Spring! 


Yesterday, the Office of Management and Budget announced that Ed DeSeve has been appointed a special advisor to oversee the implementation of the Recovery Act.  DeSeve, a former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, will work with Vice President Biden and his Recovery Act task force to ensure the government gets intended results, for the best value.


There have been several media articles commenting on the increased use of White House “czars” to lead different initiatives for the Obama Administration.  For example, the National Journal’s Amy Harder, raised concerns about a possible “executive power grab.”


There are different ways of looking at this.  This blog was launched two years ago, in part, to track the evolution of how we govern.  The initial post asked readers to comment on Professor Don Kettl’s provocative paper (which is now a book, “The Next Government of the United States”). Well, now it is the Next Government.  The traditional “Vending Machine” model of government that he describes doesn’t work any longer for the challenges we’re facing.  And Obama is adopting the new tools Kettl predicted would be needed to act boldly in an ever-changing environment.  But how do you keep track of a government that works across organizational boundaries?


The old approach was to reorganize government.  The new approach is to work with networks.  But how do you make sense of the dozens of connections?  Long-time network theorists, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, have been puzzling over this in large corporations.  They’ve turned their attention to government.  Here’s how they’ve created a new “virtual” government organization chart (be patient, it takes a few moments for the software to load, and no, it’s not a virus).  It’s based on the published organization charts of agencies  . . . you can move your cursor to different agencies and you’ll see the connections between organizations recalibrate from that node’s perspective.


While that’s a neat visual, how can you use it “for real?”  Well, Lipnack and Stamps constructed a sample around the programs funded under the Recovery Act.  You can theoretically (once the data are available via the website) trace a grant or contract from the program all the way down to the recipient, and all the intervening connections.  The paths for accountability become clearer with these kinds of graphical depictions.  Maps “on the fly” like this can help both citizens and oversight organizations better understand what is happening – without having to formally reorganize government agencies.


Allowing greater agility in how the executive branch is governed, such as through task forces and other temporary structures, can allow quicker responsiveness.  Providing greater transparency and graphical visualization of complex information are new tools for providing public understanding and accountability.  And it seems President Obama is willing to use them!

Fast Action on Stimulus Implementation

March 12, 2009

recovery1The Obama Administration recognizes the importance of the Recovery Act and doing a credible job in its implementation.  The initial emphasis was on accountability to ensure the monies were not ill-spent. 

President Obama emphasized this in his meetings with both governors and mayors. In speaking to state governors on February 23, President Obama said:


“. . . I’m announcing today that I’m asking my Vice President, Joe Biden, to oversee our administration’s implementation efforts.  Beginning this week, Joe will meet regularly with key members of my Cabinet to make sure our efforts are not just swift, but also efficient and effective.  Joe is also going to work closely with you, our nation’s governors, as well as our mayors and everyone else involved in this effort, to keep things on track.  And the fact that I’m asking my Vice President to personally lead this effort shows how important it is for our country and our future to get this right, and I thank him for his willingness to take on this critical task. In the coming weeks, we’re also going to appoint some of the nation’s best managers and public officials to work with the Vice President on this effort.”


He’s been known to call Vice President Biden the “sheriff,” in overseeing the Recovery Act.  There’s been a lot of emphasis on accountability, with the creation of and the creation of the Recovery Act Transparency Board, headed by Earl Devaney.


But it’s increasingly clear that accountability can’t be the primary emphasis.  Obama needs a “trail boss,” not a sheriff!  The Washington Post’s Alec MacGillis says this will be a chance for public servants to show government can work.


The lack of some key appointees has been part of the challenge.  The “normal” government would have seen the deputy director for management at OMB and the deputy secretaries taking the lead in implementing an initiative of this scale.  But these positions are still being filled.  So another approach is being used.


Today, Vice President Biden hosted a conference of state budet officials to describe progress so far on the Recovery Act’s implementation.  He said the President will announce new implementation rules tomorrow.


Here are some of the key pieces of the evolving governance structure that have been developed so far:


Vice President’s Office.  Vice President Biden convened his first meeting on February 24th with an emphasis on transparency and accountability.  But the meeting quickly shifted to implementation, with a high concern over whether the contracting workforce can handle the anticipated increase in their workload (for example, the General Services Administration’s budget is increasing by 1,130 percent, without much of an increase in contract staffing).


Office of Management and Budget.  OMB has taken an early lead by publishing initial guidance, mainly for the reporting requirements in the Act.  Government Executive published a helpful “Economic Stimulus Checklist” to keep the various reporting requirements in line.  Agencies’ first weekly reports on the Recovery Act were due March 3rd.


OMB is also flagging potential problems, such as yesterday’s announcement that the governmentwide portal for grants applications,, could be overwhelmed if steps are not taken to ensure it has the capacity to process the number of expected grants applications.  Agencies have until March 13th to assess their grants management systems.


Office of Personnel Management.  OPM knows that getting the right people in place is going to be a key element of success. It has been pressed to delegate certain authorities to agencies, and in response convened a governmentwide meeting to work out the details.


Agency Recovery Act Coordinators.  The White House asked agencies to designate a point of contact for their agencies.  Lacking political appointees in many agencies, this started slow, but agencies are now making progress. For example, Interior Secretary Salazar named his choice recently.  Agency finance officers are seeing major challenges, as well, according to Government Executive’s Katherine Peters, who says agency chief financial officers are facing staff shortages already, and have a growing workload from other programs, as well.


State Recovery Act Coordinators.  States are designating Recovery Act coordinators as well, to serve not only as a counterpart to their federal coordinators but also to work across their own state governments.  States are creating their own Recovery Act websites as well that are being linked to the federal site.  These sites are in response to the reporting requirements in the Recovery Act.


External Efforts to Monitor Progress. External groups are also evolving to monitor the implementation of the Recovery Act.  For example, StimulusWatch is sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation.

Obama Agenda Re-Cap

March 9, 2009

A friend called me last week asking if President Obama had yet developed his “management agenda.”  I said, “no,” that it may be too early, but in any case there were a number of other initiatives underway.  Almost as if in response, President Obama used his weekly radio address this past weekend to recap a whirlwind of initiatives launched over the past couple of weeks.  He started with the announcement of a lost of a total of 4.4 million jobs since the recession began, resulting in the highest unemployment rate in a quarter of a century.  His address centered on five areas:


Economy.  He talked about his economic agenda:  The passage of the Recovery Act, which he says will expand broadband, roads, wind turbines, and mass transit.  He also announced a plan to unfreeze credit availability to individuals and to allow lenders to help borrowers to restructure their mortgages.


Budgeting.  He talked about his drive to change the way Washington does business, saying “We cannot waste money.  We will cut where we must, and invest where we need.”  He said he inherited a $1.3 trillion budget deficit, the largest in U.S. history, and a budget process that he described as both irresponsible and unsustainable.  He said he would “reduce discretionary spending for non-defense as share of the economy by more than 10 percent over the next decade.”  He said this would be the lowest level since record-keeping started more than half a century ago.


Contracting.  He said he signed a directive last week that would ban no-bid contracts where possible, and dramatically reforming how contracts are awarded.  He said this would save $40 billion a year.


Healthcare.  He also talked about his Healthcare Summit, where the goal is to create quality, affordable healthcare.


So maybe, after his first 100 days in office, we’ll not see the more traditional “management agenda,” but rather a “performance agenda,” of things that need focused attention on implementation, not management capacity building. . . . .