Recovery Act Blog Index

May 17, 2010 by

Following is an index of blog entries between the start, March 4, 2010 and  May 17, 2010, organized around major Recovery Act topics and General Government Themes.



The long view April 8, 2010

Build America Bonds

A billion here, a billion there March 12, 2010

Cash for Clunkers

Cash for Clunkers: Measuring Performance May 5, 2010

Cash for Clunkers: Digging Deeper April 15, 2010


ARRA Meets the Frontier May 12, 2010

Leaving Cash on the Table… May 4, 2010

Heading Over the Funding Cliff? April 21, 2010

Judging the judges April 5, 2010

Update: Hawaii Education March 31, 2010

Hawaii: A very slow race to the top? March 30, 2010

Race to the Top chatter March 30, 2010

Race To the Top Finalists and a Clear Crystal Ball March 29, 2010

Race to the top . . . even without the cash March 19, 2010

Race to the Top: A New Beginning? March 4, 2010

Energy Efficiency

Long-term thinking in New Mexico April 23, 2010

A new report on measuring energy savings April 7, 2010

Health IT

Health IT: Puzzling Out the Meaning Behind “Meaningful Use” May 17, 2010

The Health IT Challenge April 21, 2010


Pick a Number May 3, 2010

Where are Maryland’s Green Collar Jobs? May 3, 2010

A Stark Difference April 16, 2010

Youth shall be served. . . March 22, 2010

Research & Development

Using the Stimulus to Innovate March 29, 2010

Smart Grid

Smart Grids and the Stimulus May 13, 2010

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (food stamps)

The cloud inside the silver lining April 19, 2010

A billion here, a billion there March 12, 2010


“Shovel Ready or Not?” April 29, 2010

Is Faster Better? April 13, 2010

How much does it cost? March 18, 2010


Things actually could be finer…in Carolina May 11, 2010

Speeding up Weatherization: Michigan’s Solution April 14, 2010

Why weatherization dollars have been delayed April 7, 2010

Conflicting goals, weatherization and a little about soccer April 6, 2010

Reading list March 25, 2010

Wanna see a Governor get results? Keep reading March 24, 2010

Websites (states)

Trying to meet “a gold standard” April 5, 2010

Wisconsin: Better and better March 31, 2010

California’s take on and the State’s New Stimulus Website March 23, 2010

“Before the phone starts ringing. . . .” March 23, 2010

INTERVIEW WITH: Beth Blauer, director of Maryland’s StateStat March 16, 2010

Ranking the websites — additional thoughts March 10, 2010

Ranking the stimulus websites March 9, 2010

Workforce Training

Measures for Workforce Training . . . A Minnesota Audit’s Critique April 22, 2010



“It Takes Time to Coordinate” April 28, 2010

“It didn’t seem worth going through that headache. . . .” April 20, 2010

“Are you spending more time to report than to deal with programmatic responsibilities?” April 1, 2010

Economic Impact

A civilized followup April 8, 2010

A Civilized Debate April 2, 2010

Funding Cliff

Heading Over the Funding Cliff? April 21, 2010

Historical Perspective

“The sheer depth of the crisis. . . .” Q&A with Paul Posner May 6, 2010

Media Coverage

“You can’t do the math that way”April 12, 2010


Accurate or not? April 27, 2010

From the auditor’s seatApril 9, 2010

Reading list March 25, 2010

Keeping up with the GAO March 8, 2010

Performance Measurement

Cash for Clunkers: Measuring Performance May 5, 2010

Measures for Workforce Training . . . A Minnesota Audit’s Critique April 22, 2010

Wanna see a Governor get results? Keep reading March 24, 2010

INTERVIEW WITH: Beth Blauer, director of Maryland’s StateStat March 16, 2010

Starting off on the right foot. . .March 15, 2010

How deep do you want to dive? March 8, 2010

Welcome. . . March 4, 2010

Public Opinion

Ed DeSeve: “They like the things money is used for. . . .” March 11, 2010


ARRA on Cloud Nine May 14, 2010


Shedding (tiny little bits of) light on ARRA April 16, 2010

The transparency balancing act April 9, 2010

“Before the phone starts ringing. . . .” March 23, 2010

Cleaning up the data March 17, 2010

Nevada: Stimulus Reporting for Everyman March 5, 2010

Health IT: Puzzling Out the Meaning Behind “Meaningful Use”

May 17, 2010 by

One of ARRA’s long-term goals is to push America’s health care providers to use electronic health records (EHR) and other health information technology (health IT).

The carrot that ARRA has in hand, of course, is money. But despite the incentivizing dollars, providers have been reluctant to rush out and buy technology (not to mention the training and other administrative costs). Why? Because they’re going to have to eventually demonstrate that their expenditures meet the definition of “meaningful use,” that the Recovery Act requires. This is very tricky, since nobody has really defined meaningful use.

(We can empathize: As we’ve tried to understand what meaningful use is, we sometimes find ourselves spinning in the Land of Meaningless Tautology. That is to say, we begin to feel as though “meaningful use” is generally defined as “use that’s meaningful.”)

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT  published a first stage set of meaningful use criteria in late 2009, though the final rulemaking is pending. Stage 2 and Stage 3 criteria have yet to be released. The three criteria stages will become effective in 2011, 2013 and 2015 respectively.

John Lynn of the EMR and EHR blog recently linked to a relatively simplified 12-page matrix and a list of 25 objectives for meeting the first stage meaningful use threshold. As you can see, the objectives range from things like tracking patient medications and providing patients access to their health information to more esoteric items like the capability to provide” electronic syndromic surveillance data” to public agencies.

That last one might not be 100% clear to laymen (goodness knows it’s not clear to us), but generally speaking all the objectives seem straightforward enough.

However, Lynn points out a further hitch:

It’s one thing to have nice lists of meaningful use objectives. Then, people can look them over and try and guess what CMS might do with those objectives, but it’s a very different thing to have details about what will really need to be done to meet those objectives.

So the problem is really two-fold. Providers aren’t sure exactly what they need to do AND they aren’t exactly sure how they’re going to prove they’re doing it.

These questions will no doubt be sorted out in due time, and we’re sympathetic with the men and women trying to put a definition to meaningful use. On the one hand, if the definition is too loose, there’s a real risk that stimulus dollars might be wasted. On the other hand, if the definition is too prescriptive, then good and sensible EHR uses might never have the chance to see the light of day.

ARRA on Cloud Nine

May 14, 2010 by

Yesterday, in his own blog entry, Recovery Board Chairman Earl E. Devaney announced that the Board has shucked its old fashioned computer infrastructure and moved to cloud computing, in which individual organizations can access the computer power they need, through the Internet. The Recovery Board’s move, hosted by, actually took place on April 26, making “the first government-wide technology system to use the cloud infrastructure.”

The chairman totes up the savings at $750,000 for the next year and a half, with more expected down the road. Other benefits he lists include faster service, better energy conservation and the ability of staffers and contractors to focus on content rather than the technology itself.

You can read more about the change at the Chairman’s Corner.

Smart Grids and the Stimulus

May 13, 2010 by

We’re always on the lookout for ARRA dollars spurring innovations that could change the way we live. On that note, we were thoroughly entertained by 10 Pretty Darn Interesting Stimulus-Funded Smart Grid Projects from Smart Grid News.

For example, we can’t wait to use something like this in our home:

GE Smart Grid pilot on Maui: In the isolated resort community of Wailea – located in the most fossil-fuel dependent state in the country – GE and Hawaii Electric are testing wall-mounted meters that will monitor power consumption of household appliances and let customers know when peak demand periods occur. The goal is reduce peak electricity consumption by 15% by 2012.

Of course, if we can’t get this in our home, we could always move to Maui. That wouldn’t be so bad either. . .

ARRA Meets the Frontier

May 12, 2010 by

One challenge for any federal program is to try to make it work, more or less, for each of the 50 states, regardless of size, demographics, etc. The Recovery Act may be having troubles accomplishing that.

In late April, 13 rural states sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, describing issues they face as they try to compete for ARRA school improvement and Race to the Top grants.

With respect to school improvement grants, the letter asserts that rural states are hard-pressed to implement any of the four available “intervention models” to transform underachieving schools.

For example, the letter points out that the “turnaround model,” which would require firing the principal and half the staff of a failing school, simply isn’t viable for many rural schools:

[M]any of our districts are considered frontier. . . .Districts in the remote areas [face challenges] regarding recruitment and retention of principals and staff. The challenges of these lowest performing districts do not rest solely on the backs of their principal, and we struggle to find quality administrators willing to take the helm of a school in such dire circumstances. Further, the idea of firing half the staff at these schools and finding replacements is a virtual impossibility.

Charter schools, which are also supported by stimulus dollars may also be unrealistic in rural states. It certainly stands to reason that there may not be enough students in rural areas to support charter schools. On top of which, as the letter notes, charter schools may not be viable politically. The states suggest that federal regulations could be removed from existing public schools, allowing states to use their existing resources in a charter school manner.

The rural states’ letter also says that the rigorous Race to the Top grant applications are forcing them to shift their attention and resources away from their main work at a time when they are already stretched thin.   Possibly true. But we’d be surprised if even the most densely populated states didn’t share that concern.

Things actually could be finer…in Carolina

May 11, 2010 by

Most states have had problems implementing the stimulus weatherization program in a timely way. But we’ve never heard of a string of bad luck and sorrow quite like North Carolina’s. Here’s the story, as related in the Greensboro News & Record:

  • The money set aside for weatherization was only a small piece of the 2009 stimulus bill, but it was more than 10 times the amount North Carolina regularly receives from the federal program for such efforts.
  • The man who had been running the program died suddenly from a stroke just as the massive influx of cash was heading to North Carolina.
  • At the same time, last year’s state budget transferred the State Energy Office and weatherization program from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Commerce. That change meant a refiling of paperwork with the federal government.
  • That bureaucratic shuffle delayed work at the state level until September, said State Energy Office spokesman Seth Effron. Money didn’t begin to filter to the nonprofits until November.
  • “And then in December and January, in terms of agencies getting things done, there were weather problems,” he said.

The result, according to the article, is that the state has completed barely one-tenth of the 22,203 housing units that could be weatherized with stimulus money.

“The sheer depth of the crisis. . . .” Q&A with Paul Posner

May 6, 2010 by

Unlike all-too-many observers, Paul Posner hasn’t been looking at the stimulus act in isolation, but in a broader historical framework that we think is illuminating. His insight comes from first-hand experience with past stimulus efforts — first as director of federal programs for the New York City Office of Management and Budget in the mid 1970’s when federal grants helped hard pressed cities deal with the fall out from the oil crisis and unemployment of that era, then at GAO where he served as Director of Federal Budget and Intergovernmental Relations. Posner is currently director of the Master’s in Public Administration program at George Mason University .

How does today's stimulus act compare to the New Deal?

Following is a Q&A with him:

Q. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the stimulus added 2.1 percentage points to GDP growth and created or saved between 800,000 and 2.4 million jobs in its first year.Yet the majority of Americans are apparently against it. How does this reaction compare to the way the public greeted Roosevelt’s New Deal?

PP:  The New Deal stimulus had widespread popular acclaim. Its job creation programs – The Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps – enjoyed tremendous popular support, as did President Franklin Roosevelt. Each of these programs developed a strong political following.

Q. We’ve been going through a recession – maybe even a Great Recession. But was the far more extreme unemployment in the 1930s part of the reason the public bought in?

PP: Yes. The sheer depth of crisis characterizing the New Deal made institutional innovations politically possible that were unthinkable before. That generated bipartisan support in the first few years of FDR’s term. The economy grew by nine percentage points a year in the first years of the New Deal, reducing unemployment from 25 percent to 15 percent. Each of the programs developed a strong political following from grateful clients who identified them as a safe harbor in a horrible economic storm.

Q. How different was the political climate?

PP: FDR had enormous personal popularity that translated into support from an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. But the Republicans of that day, many of whom were progressives, grudgingly voted for many New Deal programs as well. In this administration, no House Republican voted for the initial stimulus and both parties continue to escalate their rhetoric as the November elections approach.

Q. Did President Roosevelt have more solid support from his own party, too?

PP:.  Yes, but the political situation itself has changed. In those days, a popular president had long coattails. Presidents were much more able to carry their own parties to victory and congressional allies took their policy cues from the person who lifted them into office. Seventy years ago most of the electorate voted a straight party ticket.

By contrast, President Obama and most postwar presidents have to cobble together majorities in a more perplexing, challenging party system. Today, increasing shares of the electorate are independents who are prone to split their vote between the President’s own party, Congress and other offices on the ballot. Members of Congress, even in the President’s own party, understand this and keep their distance when the President’s policies might jeopardize their own unique local political coalitions. It’s also more difficult for presidents to find allies on the other side of the aisle. Members of Congress are increasingly influenced not by the median general election voter but the median primary voter and that pulls them away from the center toward the extremes of  the ideological spectrum.

Q. The relationship between the federal government and state or local governments was much different in the past as well. What impact has that had?

PP: Unlike today, the important job programs of the New Deal were direct centralized federal programs. Grateful clients of the programs had trained their hopes on the White House for deliverance. The President reaped considerable short term political rewards. Not only was he able to take credit for the millions of jobs produced, but he was also able to steer rewards to political allies and punish his opponents.

By contrast, the current stimulus is delivered using a highly decentralized structure. The expansion of national policy over the past 65 years has not been carried out by federal bureaucrats, but by a wide range of third parties, mostly state and local officials. In just the first quarter of the program, there were more than 130,000 state and local governments, nonprofits and private firms that received stimulus grants contracts and loans.

Q. How does that affect the political impact?

PP: This system of what I call “third party governance” raises political challenges. The President’s ability to deliver rests on the shoulders of thousands of non-federal implementers, all with different priorities and capabilities. Most critically, the responsibility for the outcome of the programs is highly dispersed and there’s no clear line of sight for the public to attribute credit to the President, particularly since the Governor, mayor and other political figures are likely to be competing for public approbation.

In addition, the strategy for rapid deployment of the stimulus dollars carried distinct political downsides for President Obama. His administration used existing programs and highly professionalized administrative networks to deliver the dollars. That avoided start up problems, but it has made it difficult for the public to differentiate the effects of the stimulus from the day to day effects of existing programs.

Q. Are there other ways that this effort to stimulate the economy has differed from attempts in the past?

PP: This one was enacted remarkably quickly. The 2009 stimulus became law only 14 months after the recession officially began in December 2007. In the past, 27 months have gone by, on average, between the beginning of a recession and the enactment of stimulus initiatives.

Cash for Clunkers: Measuring Performance

May 5, 2010 by

The GAO recently released a report reviewing the impact of Cash for Clunkers. Beyond good information about that program, this report impressively discusses general questions regarding stimulus implementation and performance measurement. Here’s the conclusion of the GAO’s report: (Note: NHTSA refers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; the emphasis is ours.)

The implementation and results of the CARS program offer potential lessons learned for future vehicle retirement or similar incentive programs. First, the program produced economic and environmental benefits, achieving its broad objectives. However, the extent of the program’s effects is uncertain.

Second, before a program is underway, steps must be taken to determine what impacts are going to be measured and what data will be required to measure them. Moreover, steps must be taken to ensure that the data are reliable. NHTSA relied heavily on the consumer survey for data on the economic and environmental benefits of the CARS program. However, there is a potential risk to the reliability of estimates based on this survey data, because NHTSA did not follow some generally accepted survey design and implementation practices, largely because it had limited time to establish and administer the program.

Finally, given the number of stakeholders that are financially affected by the auto industry, it would be important to collect and consider information on how a future program would affect these stakeholders and take mitigating actions, as appropriate.

It’s hard not to get the sense that the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature of Cash for Clunkers made it, at best, difficult to ascertain the real benefits of the program. Given that some facets of the stimulus are designed specifically to spur data collection and use (as in the education and health care fields), we’re often surprised by the data shortcomings in other  stimulus spending as well as the lack of strong performance management thinking.

We appreciate that officials wanted to execute the program quickly, but if you can’t evaluate how beneficial a program is, how can you know whether or not it was wise to do it in the first place, much less do it quickly? How can you learn how to do it better next time?

We should also note that this second takeaway—“ before a program is underway, steps must be taken to determine what impacts are going to be measured and what data will be required to measure them”—sounds to us like some of the issues we’re hearing with respect to other stimulus projects. In several of the stimulus program measurement conversations we’ve had, jobs and spending seem to be the only real measures of success for certain programs.

Finally, anyone interested in designing and conducting valid surveys should definitely read Appendix II of this report, in which the GAO analyzes the NHTSA’s consumer survey of Cash for Clunkers, pointing out its weaknesses.

Leaving Cash on the Table…

May 4, 2010 by

Indiana’s school system bowed out of Round Two of Race to the Top in late April. Why would a state walk away from a potentially huge education bonanza? We looked into the issue, and here’s what we found.

For one thing, Indiana officials complain that the Race to the Top scoring favors states with fewer teachers’ unions. Whether or not this was intentional in any way is immaterial. Indiana has 293 school districts, more than many other states, and it was a Herculean task to get all the unions and education leadership on the same page.  Kim Preston, Director of Communication for Indiana’s Department of Education adds that Delaware, which won about $100 million in the first round of Race to the Top funding, has few enough school districts that they could all talk around a single table.

Indiana’s Dale Chu, Senior Adviser for School Leadership & Policy, explains that the challenge of getting so many individuals to play nicely together makes it nearly impossible to get wide-spread  buy-in for bold reforms.

The federal emphasis on getting that buy-in from teachers unions is certainly understandable. But Chu speculates that there could have been another worthwhile approach: using the awards to incentivize bolder reforms as opposed to guaranteeing achievability.  It would have sent a very interesting message, says Chu, if a state like Louisiana, which had some of the boldest reforms, would have won money in the first round instead of finishing 11th.

Another question from Indiana about the scoring and the Race to the Top judges: “There wasn’t consistency from the reviewers. The feds did not throw out high scores or low scores even if they seemed to be an anomaly,” says Chief Operating Officer Heather Neal. “While the [scoring] rubric we had seemed specific, we’re not sure how standardized the training or implementation was.”

By way of example, Chu points again to Louisiana’s grades: “Two [of their five reviewers] said they didn’t submit a bold, comprehensive reform plan. I don’t think you can find two other people in the country who didn’t think they had a bold reform plan.”

But all of these concerns aside, Neal, Preston, and Chu agree that the Race to the Top’s competitive reform grant-making has been catalytic. (“It can’t be overstated how valuable some of those conversations we had here internally were,” Chu says.)  In fact, their main worry is that it will be a  once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, rather than a dynamic, ongoing shift in federal education support.

Where are Maryland’s Green Collar Jobs?

May 3, 2010 by

We recommend that you listen to Maryland Morning’s excellent report on the Recovery Act’s renewable energy impact in Maryland as well as the program delays that have slowed the start of green collar jobs like solar panel installation. Maryland Morning is a radio program that runs 4 days a week.