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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.


Progress on Obama Transparency Efforts

March 3, 2009

President Obama signed a directive in his first full day in office committing his Administration to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” He directed the Chief Technology Officer to, within 120 days, create recommendations for an Open Government Directive.


Well, 120 days is May 21st and there’s no Chief Technology Officer. So Beth Noveck, in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is filling in the breech. When she was a law professor before joining the Obama Administration, she participated in a number of cutting edge approaches to opening up government, so she’s got a passion for this already. I’m sure she’s working with Vivek Kundra, the OMB e-government administrator who is equally passionate about this topic.


To date, there’s been a note to agency officials who already monitor this topic to provide their ideas on greater transparency. This is being done via a membership-restricted government website that was originally created for agency budget officers to communicate with each other. They have until March 6th to provide their ideas.

LATER ADDITION:  Here’s the actual note.

After March 6th, a government website will be created for citizens and others to provide their ideas for how government should be more transparent, participative, and collaborative. But that hasn’t stopped others from forging ahead in advance!


The Administration has already undertaken several transparency initiatives, as noted by blogger Chris Dorobek. The most prominent are associated with the Recovery Act, with the creation of, as well as agency-level web links tracking Recovery Act monies and projects (see, for example, the HHS Recovery Act webpage).


Also, a number of agency heads are writing their own blogs, including the Director of OMB, Peter Orszag. Other high-visibility bloggers include the White House, the State Department, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.


Here are some ideas already on the table to expand the Obama efforts:

  • The Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy Coalition issued a white paper to the Obama Transition team back in November, recommending the creation of a White House Office of Citizen Engagement. While that hasn’t happened, the White House did designate Kate Stanton as the director of citizen participation.
  • There was a “Transparency Camp” held this past weekend among advocates of greater transparency. One of the participants, David Stephenson, offered a presentation on “Democratizing Data” where the federal role would be to provide raw data feeds of as much data as possible, allowing citizens to create their own mashups of information. This approach was taken by Vivek Kundra when he was the chief technology officer for the District of Columbia (see DC Data Catalog). Interestingly, Stephenson points to experiences in other countries where increased data sharing lowered government administrative costs.

  • There is a wish list of different transparency ideas published by the Sunlight Foundation, which is a strong advocate of transparency. Some of these are statutory, but some are simple, such as having the president post any signing statements on the White House website 72 hours before he signs a bill.

Still, much of this won’t be easy. There was a great article by Jose Antonio Vargas yesterday in the Washington Post, “Web-Savvy Obama Team Hits Unexpected Bumps,” describing the practical barriers to greater transparency because of existing government laws and policies.

Avoiding a Parallel Government

February 20, 2009

 The Stimulus Bill contains an enormous number of reporting requirements. For example, Stimulus dollars have to be accounted separately, and agencies must separately report on who gets the dollars, including subcontractors or sub-grantees, and how many jobs are created.  Programs, agencies, OMB, and the new, $84 million Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board (see p. 175 of the bill) are all required to report on the progress of spending, often on different timetables.  In fact, according to new OMB guidance, there are eight levels of reporting that are now required, with the first report from agencies due March 3rd!


There is a risk of creating, at least on paper, a parallel government – the regular government and the Stimulus government — programs (and dollars) being funded via Stimulus dollars.  The Stimulus spending ($787 billion) is almost the size of a “regular” annual budget (about $990 billion in discretionary spending in 2009, once you back out interest on the debt and entitlement programs).


The Bill includes over $300 million in additional oversight monies to make sure the Stimulus funds are being spent appropriately.  In addition, millions more have been set aside for administrative tracking of funds by federal agencies, and even more has been set aside to support administrative tracking requirements at the state and local levels.


In many cases, Stimulus dollars are being dumped into existing, ongoing programs in order to get the dollars out quickly.  But this creates a dilemma – how do you separately account for Stimulus dollars being used to accelerate an existing construction project, including accounting for which subcontractors are being paid with which pot of dollars?


This could be seen as an enormous reporting burden, or an opportunity to completely rethink how reporting is done.  After all, Team Obama – the campaign staff – was rated as the most innovative organization in 2008 by FastCompany magazine.  Can they bring this spirit into the government?  Here are some possible directions:


A recent McKinsey Quarterly article, “Six Ways to Make Web 2.0 Work,” offers some approaches that may provide some useful strategic direction.  For example, the only way an organization can successfully employ Web 2.0 tools – which require bottom-up participation – is for leadership to become role models and lead in its use through informal channels.


Yesterday, OMB convened hundreds of agency personnel from across the government at the DOI auditorium to explain their new reporting requirements.  The statutory requirements are complicated, but they are using new approaches, such as the MAX Budget Community wiki, to share information and move quickly.


In addition,  is an exciting new approach.  If you haven’t looked at it, it’s worth the visit.  Will agencies move toward real time reporting of contracts?  The law requires reporting within 30 days, but why not when the contract is signed?  What about the use of wikis to share best practices and to draft common administrative requirements?  What about allowing others to download the spending data and create their own mashups?  These and other ideas will likely float forward.  In fact, these kinds of ideas may be the only way the government can actually meet the requirements of both getting the money out to quickly create jobs, and ensuring the monies are not wasted.