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It's waste vs. cost in the transparency debate

There are some technical steps officials could take to make reporting less burdensome for recipients of federal stimulus money, such as auto-filling more parts of the electronic spending form, reducing the number of data fields and adding auto-editing programs that spot common mistakes such as incorrect ZIP codes, government watchdogs said Wednesday.

Congress also could raise the floor on required reporting above its current level of $25,000 for most stimulus funds, inspectors general from various science-related agencies testified before members of a House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.

There's a trade-off, however, said Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman. Less burdensome reporting likely will come with higher levels of waste, fraud and abuse.

"If the body politic is prepared to accept [a new] threshold and understands the risk associated with that threshold . . . that's OK," Friedman said. "But if, at the end of the day, we're going to adopt such a mechanism and then have people criticize the fact that there wasn't adequate reporting or oversight below the threshold, we will have ended up moving the ball backward rather than forward."

Republicans and Democrats have largely praised oversight provisions in President Obama's $840 billion 2009 economic stimulus bill, despite a deep and highly partisan divide over the economic value of the bill itself.

Those innovations include placing the financial reporting burden on recipients of stimulus money rather than on agencies and pulling all spending reports onto a public website, Recovery.gov, so citizens can blow the whistle when something has been paid for but not produced. The provisions also include new technology, some borrowed from the intelligence community, that combs public records to root out possible fraudulent contractors before the government cuts a check rather than after.

The Obama administration is investigating a plan to implement that reporting system governmentwide and bipartisan legislation that would do much the same thing is working its way through Congress.

Both plans include a whole-of-government spending oversight panel modeled on the stimulus-tracking Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.

University researchers and some small businesses have complained that the board's reporting requirements are overly burdensome and bury their small staffs in paperwork.

Those complaints have diminished significantly since 2009 as the board has honed its reporting site and as stimulus fund recipients have become adept at using the system, panelists said. A governmentwide reporting system would further address many complaints by eliminating the duplicate reporting that many recipients now experience in working with multiple agencies, they said.

Ultimately, though, there's a trade-off between transparency and ease of doing business, panelist and lawmakers said.

"Transparency is wonderful, but it does come at a cost," the panel's ranking member, Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said. "Agencies have more burdens associated with working with fund recipients and collecting data. The [inspectors general] and the [Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board] have the burden of spot-checking reporting compliance and aggregating data . . . Recipients of funds have costs associated with reporting requirements and tracking where funds specifically go."

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