Posts Tagged ‘USA Today’

Recovery Act: Six Months Old

August 18, 2009

recovery1Yesterday’s USA Today cover story was bannered: “Poll: 57%  Don’t See Stimulus Working.”  People are so impatient! Today, it’s the Recovery Act’s 6-month birthday. And yesterday, Recovery Act recipients could start signing up so they can report their progress starting October 1st.  Maybe then, people will see what is really going on with their money!

According to Recovery.gov, as of today there are 25,897 ongoing Recovery Act projects worth a total of $91.1 billion – out of a total of $787 billion authorized to be spent over the next year or so.

In an interview with Barry Bosworth of the Brookings Institution, Federal News Radio’s Suzanne Kubota writes that that the transfer payment (e.g., unemployment insurance extension) and tax reduction elements of the bill got up and running quickly and the direct spending programs in the bill are taking a longer time to get monies out.  This is no real surprise to government watchers – transfer payments and tax rebates don’t require much in the way of program guidance and are largely check-writing operations!

As for the direct payment programs, though, there’s more guidance and reporting.  And there are many more players involved.  Much of the media has focused on transparency of the funding.  This is provided via sites from non-profits, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, individual federal agencies, and individual states.

However, how about information for those who have to implement the direct spending programs in federal agencies, states, and localities?  Interestingly, many helpful sites are springing up to aid those in government trying to get it right:

The Council of State Governments has created a Recovery Act website – StateRecovery.org — that aggregates useful information for state officials.

The National League of Cities has dedicated a webpage to Recovery Act news, organized by policy areas where dollars are available (e.g., public safety).

The Association for Government Accountants has created a Recovery Act webpage for its members who have to administer the funds.

Government Executive magazine has created a “Stimulus Checklist” to help feds keep up with what’s going on, along with a series of webinars and forums.

And of course, the Office of Management and Budget has a list of its guidance.

Do you have a favorite resource?  Feel free to add via the “comment” box!

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Is the Vending Machine Broken?

February 9, 2009

Dr. Donald Kettl says the “vending machine” model of government is increasingly obsolete.  His analogy of a vending machine – where politicians put money in, and out comes a public service through the slot – not only is obsolete, but may prove to be broken when the flood of stimulus money is released.  The better analogy may be the Iraqi power grid after the 2003 invasion. We thought the war damage just needed repaired when in fact the whole system had collapsed because it was dysfunctional in the first place.

 

Is this just hype?  Maybe not.  USA Today’s front page headline this morning was “$3.9 Billion in Hurricane Aid Still Unspent.”

 

Why is this a problem?  Well, the typical policy-to-delivery cycle in the federal government takes about five years:    from the point of drafting a bill to authorization, to appropriation, to drafting the program rules, to staffing the program, to competing the grants or contracts, to subcontracting the award at the front line, to the actual delivery of a service.  But the stimulus bill seems to crunch that cycle down to a period of less than15 months.

 

Not only is the timeframe compressed under the draft stimulus bill, but there are added rules:  grants and contracts must be competed, environmental impact statements cannot be shortcut, US-made steel has to be used in construction. And about a quarter of a billion dollars has been added for oversight. 

 

But what about implementation?  The latest stimulus bill does recognize “administrative” costs by providing some additional dollars.  However, it is not clear whether these dollars equal or exceed what is being fenced for oversight.  But even if there is a flood of dollars for program management, the hiring, training, and deployment of needed staff cannot be measured in weeks (as assumed) but in months or years.  And the dollars are for a time-limited period, so those being hired would face temporary positions.

 

The solution may not lie only in additional dollars for staff, but in how government organizes to act.  Right now, the bill authorizes an oversight board – to be headed by the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget — but not an execution or delivery board.  And someone probably needs to be given authority to waive rules (authority like Secretary Paulson was given to manage the bailout funds, in Sec. 135 of that bill).  This could be seen as undemocratic, but without someone having the authority to cut the Gordian Knot of bureaucracy, large portions of the stimulus bill will likely never be spent, since funding for many of the programs in the bill seem to expire on September 30, 2010.  It is “use it or lose it” and the red tape of traditional program implementation may cause it to be lost.

 

Another step might be to take Dr. Kettl’s advice on creating government-wide collaborative networks and use them to share resources and best practices, and develop joint rules via wikis, etc.  But this would require strong leadership from the center, and a strong willingness to work across agency and program boundaries.  This is typically counter to what Congress and inspectors general have been historically comfortable with, for accountability reasons.  Examples of efforts to work across agency boundaries, such as the Bush-era e-government efforts, were oftentimes blocked even though they offered the potential of saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

 

But if Congress wants the stimulus monies spent in a way that at least roughly matches what it intends, then it may want to provide new authorities and mechanisms to allow the executive branch to get the job done, because the old vending machine model may not work anymore.