Health

Recovery board to issue app agencies can use to report stimulus data

The board charged with oversight of stimulus spending is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to deploy a software package that agencies and recipients of stimulus funds can use to report spending data to Recovery.gov, officials with the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board said.

Open access activists and some lawmakers have called for the Office of Management and Budget to provide more specifics about the content, structure and searchability of stimulus spending data that will be available on Recovery.gov. Congress mandated that Recovery.gov become the central Web site for publishing statistics on projects that receive some of the $787 billion stimulus package and how many jobs the spending has saved or created.

Watchdog groups, nonprofit organizations and companies want to extract and analyze the data to increase the scrutiny of President Obama's economic recovery plan. For example, aggregating Recovery.gov data and private insurance data could help determine if health care costs increased or decreased for employees hired to fill jobs created through the law.

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which authorized spending to stimulate the economy, does not specify if OMB, agencies or the board are responsible for tying together the technologies that agencies will use to report data from stimulus fund recipients to Recovery.gov.

"Recovery.gov is a work in progress. We are getting there, but we don't have all the answers yet," said Ed Pound, the board's spokesman. "We are primarily working with EPA to implement a software package for reporting data. The technologies will result from the software we use."

In May, the board awarded the title of "best practice" to EPA's stimulus steering committee, a governance body that supervises recovery-related communications, policies, performance measurement and reporting.

The law stipulates that the board is responsible for maintaining the site, and that agencies are to begin transmitting reports to the board in October. Board officials plan to post the information on Recovery.gov the same month. The board has not determined how the data will be formatted, but it is working diligently to build a site that is "user-friendly to the American people," Pound said.

OMB has and will continue to provide guidance on acceptable data formats for posting stimulus information online, officials with the board and OMB said. OMB expects to publish more detailed reporting standards next week, said agency spokesman Tom Gavin, adding that he could not discuss specifics until the standards are completed.

In April, OMB directed agencies to configure news feeds that will allow users to get automatic updates. But neither OMB nor the board has issued comprehensive standards that would ensure anyone and any device can download the data and combine recovery statistics with outside information that might provide additional insight into the success of the program.

"As an outsider, it sounds like they've got to get their ducks in a row and it sounds like maybe they've already done that," said Gary Bass, executive director of the oversight nonprofit OMB Watch and a member of the steering committee for the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery.

He said the primary task for his groups is urging the administration to include metrics in the software to measure the success of stimulus spending. "Any reporting system needs to track not only who got how much money but how was that money spent," Bass said. For instance, "What are the performance metrics that are going to be used so the public knows if the dollars are wisely spent" on creating jobs and other outcomes?

Some lawmakers have faulted OMB and the board for not meeting their promise of stimulus transparency.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter on March 12 to the board questioning OMB's lack of a detailed plan for posting recovery reports on the Internet. "Third parties are waiting in the wings to build tools to combat waste, fraud and abuse, and the public deserves a detailed plan of the data the administration plans to release and how the data will be released," he stated in the letter.

Issa asked the board's chairman, Earl Devaney, "Will reports from recipients (states, cities, private entities, etc.) be in a standard format? If so, what is that standard format?"

Devaney responded in writing two weeks later to all Issa's questions. At the time, the board did not know what formats the administration would require, Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella said.

The lawmaker addressed his questions to the board, rather than OMB, because "the Recovery Board was going to be playing a very prominent role in communicating with the American people with how their tax dollars are being spent," Bardella said. "If that's not the place where we can get answers, the question is, why are they even there?"

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// April 19