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White House considers clearer instructions for spending reports

In response to an analysis that found the government's official stimulus-tracking website was hard for the public to understand, the White House is working with agency officials to consider whether they should issue additional instructions to recipients on how to report spending.

The Government Accountability Office issued on Monday 424 pages of analysis and recommendations on how the Office of Management and Budget could improve the transparency of Recovery.gov. OMB officials, the report's authors and outside watchdog groups said making the website easier to understand would be beneficial because Recovery.gov could be used to monitor all government spending.

Agencies, however, already have awarded $200 billion of the $275 billion appropriated for grants, contracts and loans under the economic stimulus package.

Auditors found that only a quarter of the stimulus projects awarded money by Dec. 31, 2009, had comprehensible information on the award's purpose, scope, location, cost, status and outcome, including the number of jobs created. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., requested GAO conduct the study.

To make the site easier to understand, GAO recommended OMB change the general guidance for recipients by providing better instructions and examples of narratives depicting their projects, and work with agencies to determine if supplemental, program-specific guidance is necessary. The auditors also advised agencies to check the quality of recipients' summaries, not just the numerical accuracy. In commenting on a draft of the report, OMB agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Auditors cited a transit award description as a model for how recipients should report spending. The write up "clearly indicated that funds will be used to purchase four hybrid buses and construct a multimodal park-and-ride facility, and, as a result, the transit fleet will be modernized and the park-and-ride facility will allow commuters to make more efficient, safe and timely transit connections," the report noted.

One of the less stellar descriptions was a highway award for chip sealing that did not explain what chip sealing was, why it was being used and on what, where the project was located, or how extensive it would be.

The report's authors said agencies that supplied recipients with program-specific instructions tended to generate more lucid descriptions compared to agencies that provided only OMB's general guidance.

"It's clear this was a very large undertaking," Kate Siggerud, co-author of the report and GAO's managing director of physical infrastructure issues, said in an interview. "OMB provided good guidance and relied on individual agencies to do more to tell their recipients to provide useful information to Recovery.gov."

When agencies distributed supplemental guidance, "we saw more descriptions with less jargon," she noted.

In explaining the recommendation that agencies inspect the reports more subjectively, Siggerud said, "Let's not just check numbers. Let's make sure that we deliver on the promise of transparency by at least doing some checking of these narrative fields."

While many of the 2009 Recovery Act funds already have been obligated, lessons from the GAO report can be applied to reports on the spending of that money, she said. Only about $60 billion of the $200 billion awarded has been paid out, according to some estimates, meaning any new guidance would affect the descriptions of $215 billion worth of spending.

On July 1, OMB spokeswoman Meg Reilly said, "Even though the majority of Recovery Act funds are already on their way out the door, the administration's commitment to accountability and transparency cannot and will not waiver."

OMB officials are open to ideas for fixing the reporting process to ensure citizens know how the money is promoting jobs and economic growth, she added. Officials will work with departments and agencies to decide whether supplemental guidance relevant to each program is necessary, Reilly said.

She said officials are encouraged the audit found only 7 percent of the project descriptions did not meet GAO's transparency criteria. "That said, the administration continues to encourage all recipients to be as detailed and complete as possible when describing the nature and progress of Recovery Act projects," she added.

Open government group OMB Watch said it is critical OMB officials improve Recovery.gov, because they could use the site's backbone to power the more comprehensive USAspending.gov, which is supposed to account for every dollar the government awards. Recovery.gov's backbone, FederalReporting.gov, is a website where recipients file their reports and agencies' review the data.

"Recovery.gov is the proving ground for how USAspending.gov should operate," said Gary Bass, executive director at OMB Watch.

He suggested agencies pre-populate narrative data fields -- where recipients are supposed to enter activities -- with project summaries since they know what the grants and contracts are intended to produce. Recipients then should be allowed to edit the descriptions if needed, Bass added.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversees stimulus spending, and the Recovery.gov and FederalReporting.gov websites, does not have a role in carrying out GAO's recommendations, board spokesman Ed Pound said. But "any change that increases transparency is one the board would be in favor of," he added.

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