“Before the phone starts ringing. . . .”

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Anyone  interested in stimulus spending quickly grows familiar with the federal government’s Recovery.gov website. It’s a comprehensive spot for citizens to get information on what’s happening in individual states. Curiously, it also turns out that Recovery.gov is the go-to place for state officials to find out what’s happening in their own backyards.

You might think they’d have their own, independent, sources of information. In fact, many states have no firm handle on what is going on with money that flows directly from the federal government to local governments or school districts within the state. When local governments direct their Recovery Act reporting straight to the federal government, that information is neither sent to the states nor are state officials allowed “early access” to Recovery.gov.  For states that are decentralized, this one-way information flow can also cause a headache if they want to get the information reported to the feds by their own state agencies.

“States ability to articulate what is happening on the federal website is lacking. What we’re struggling with as states,” says Michelle Weber, Minnesota’s ARRA coordinator, “is to look at Recovery.gov and validate that information.” Worse yet, reports Weber, “It is sometimes hard to understand where they got the information that is on Recovery.gov.”

Don Winstead, Florida’s recovery czar, says that with early access to the statewide numbers, he could have spotted some obvious errors in previous reporting periods, such as outcomes reported for congressional districts that don’t actually exist in the real world.

As it currently stands, Winstead has to wait with everyone else until the information is published. “I wish they’d have a way to give the governor’s designee broader rights to go into the system and get aggregate information, so we could have a process in place to analyze the data before the phone starts ringing.”

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