Better reporting technology an unexpected byproduct of stimulus

Forced to invent ways to quickly track how they spend recovery funds, states might have stumbled on the future of information sharing among governments and contractors.

Technology that states have deployed to report how they spent federal stimulus funds is likely to permanently change information exchange across the public and private sector, despite controversy over figures on the number of jobs created and saved, said New York officials, academics and federal leaders.

"Data is always problematic; it always can be improved," said Deborah Cunningham, coordinator for educational management services at the New York State Education Department. "This is the first time that I'm aware that the whole country reported at the same time in a 10-day period, and I think it's the way of the future."

Federal rules required states in October to electronically file details on projects that were funded through the 2009 Recovery Act between the enactment of the law in February and Sept. 30. Some states opted to collect information from every agency that received stimulus funds and then transmit all spending data in one report to the administration's information clearinghouse, FederalReporting.gov. Other states chose to make each agency responsible for filing directly to the federal Web site.

"We were saying, 'How can everybody be downloading data at the same time? It's going to crash.' [But] it didn't," Cunningham said.

The mandate to make spending transparent led New York and other states to develop systems for rapidly gathering and reporting information to the federal government. The administration, in turn, used new systems to make the data, in some instances just weeks old, available to the public.

New York's agencies, including the state departments of health, education and transportation, submitted their own reports. Several of the officials who managed the reporting, which involved collecting details from subrecipients such as vendors and local governments, shared best practices on Friday at a forum in Albany.

"We had to get all of their attention in a very short time period . . . and then actually get them to submit the information online," Cunningham said in an interview with Nextgov.

New York's education department was charged with tracking 955 subrecipients of 10 awards for 23 programs. The subrecipients included public school districts, private schools, charter schools, nonprofits and other entities.

The agency's fiscal stabilization fund, used to offset recent school budget cuts, accounts for one of New York's three largest spending areas, in addition to Medicaid grants and highway improvements, according the Government Accountability Office. New York is among the biggest state recipients of recovery money, with the federal government awarding $10.6 billion to the state during the first reporting period.

The federal government in August instructed states to begin registering for FederalReporting.gov, the password-protected database that feeds statistics into the official stimulus-tracking site Recovery.gov. To comply, New York education officials decided to combine existing IT systems with a new Web-based tool to create a smaller version of FederalReporting.gov to make filing easier for subrecipients. The tool was available Sept. 21 and subrecipients were given about two weeks to report on the status of their projects, job creation figures and other details. Under law, New York had to report to the federal government by Oct. 10. Education officials had only a few days to compile the data, identify what was missing, fix errors and meet the deadline.

"It was a very mammoth undertaking. . . . We never would have been able to do it without technology," Cunningham said. "It was our technology, our existing systems and the federal government's technology. And it was all done from our desks."

In addition to the new Web tool, the education department used an existing online business gateway for recipients of other state aid that it adapted to the recovery reporting effort. It also used a centralized e-mail box to solicit and respond to questions from subrecipients. In addition, the department offered instructional webcasts on how to use the new Web portal, as well as live question-and-answer sessions.

Officials say there is room for improvement during the next reporting phase, which ends in January 2010. Eighty-one percent of the subrecipients reported in October, Cunningham said.

"We know that some recipients experienced unacceptable wait times to reach the technical help desk, which at its height of operations was running seven days a week with more than 60 help desk personnel," Earl Devaney, chairman of the independent board overseeing stimulus spending, told lawmakers on Thursday. The help desk fielded more than 31,000 separate calls. Overall, "There were very few technical difficulties with the reporting process," Devaney added.

In addition, other New York agencies had to rely on less sophisticated technology, including spreadsheets and e-mail, to exchange information with subrecipients, said researchers at the Center for Technology in Government at the State University of New York at Albany. The center hosted Friday's event and is studying the use of state and local technology resources to manage recovery reporting. Center officials noted that some local government recipients with minimal resources were documenting spending on paper.

It might be premature to judge the technological success of state governments because "much of the money and much of the reporting has not been done yet," said Donna Canestraro, a program manager at the center. "The Jan. 10 reporting is really going to be the tell-tale,"

Reports are due quarterly, and more funds are expected to trickle down when energy and health care programs are planned to start next year.

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