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Lack of reporting, communication threaten TARP program

The Obama administration has yet to clearly communicate to the public and Congress the financial results of one of its key economic recovery programs, which could jeopardize future funding for the initiative, say federal auditors and government watchdogs.

The $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program enacted last fall has earned about $2.9 billion in dividend payments for the government through March 20, but the administration has not reported the returns to Congress or the public, the Government Accountability Office stated in a report issued on Tuesday.

If "regular and routine communication with Congress is not established, any request for additional funding, as contemplated in the president's budget, could be severely hampered," the report stated.

Treasury has yet to create a plan for articulating its activities to relevant committees, members of Congress, the public and other critical stakeholders, according to GAO. The current strategy has "largely been one of posting information to its Web site, issuing press releases, speeches [and] testimonies, and engaging in ad hoc outreach to Congress," the report added.

To provide more transparency for TARP results, the agency recommends the administration advertise more aggressively through print and video updates.

Open government advocates said the government should go further and require banks to submit financial data in a searchable format that Web developers and Internet users can sort out for themselves. Watchdog groups say the problem is not just the frequency of the disclosures, but also the format in which disclosures are displayed on financialstability.gov, the home page for many of the government bailout programs.

"Part of the challenge is this is very technical information that is hard to describe in a single news article or a single press release," said Craig Jennings, a federal fiscal policy analyst at OMB Watch.

The administration recently started posting PDF files of contracts with banks that Treasury provides capital to through the purchase of preferred shares and warrants. But Jennings said the files would be more useful if the contracts were posted in a machine-readable format that breaks the text into data fields such as "preferred shares" and "dividends."

By doing this, someone could, for example, detect correlations between banks receiving relief funds, or TARP contractors and campaign contributions and lobbying data that is available at sites such as OpenSecrets.org.

"In conversations we've had with the administration, they get this; they understand the importance of data," Jennings said. "They totally get the value of putting this stuff up and getting it out to the public" and allowing third parties to add clarity to the financial information. "They are just facing a number of obstacles, one of them being time," he added.

The consensus among transparency advocates is the information on cash flows on Treasury's bailout Web site is not navigable yet. "I still can't go to this site and see whether or not my bank has gotten TARP funds," said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation.

Treasury has posted an interactive map of institutional transactions made through the capital purchase program and has made the data available to outsiders in Extensible Markup Language. XML is digital coding that allows documents to be shared between Web applications.

But W. David Stephenson, an e-government and crisis management expert, said Treasury should require participating banks to submit information in Extensible Business Reporting Language, a code for publishing financial information in the XML format. Companies and analysts currently use XBRL to exchange accounting information and financial statements.

"I'm convinced that some smart bank is actually going to get a competitive advantage" when it comes "to realize . . . they should be reporting [XBRL] not only to Treasury on a real-time basis, but to us on a real-time basis," said Stephenson, a principal at the homeland security firm Stephenson Strategies. "This is high enough stakes. I think it's perfectly legit to demand the real-time accountability -- and the tools are there."

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