Pick a Number

May 3, 2010 by

Factcheck.org, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania,  is designed to reduce confusion and deception in U.S. politics. We’ve been following its commentary for some time, and have been generally impressed. As you’d expect, it has included a fair amount of coverage of the Recovery Act — often  calling into question exaggerated statements from all sides.

A couple of weeks ago, we featured a post about the latest job impact report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. We just came across Factcheck.org’s  look at that report, which questions the Council’s statement that “a wide range of private and government analysts concur with our estimates” of 2.2 million to 2.8 million in job impacts.”

In its assessment, Factcheck.org points out that only one of the five other estimates cited by the report falls into the range of jobs cited by the Council’s economists. It notes that of the private economists cited, all were “well below the range estimated by the White House. “ For example, “Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com put the number at 1,896,000, HIS/Global Insight put it at 1,707,000 and Macroeconomic Advisers estimated 1,462,000. While the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office came nearly up to the CEA estimate of job impact on the high side (2.7 million) its low side estimate was 1.2 million – about a million short of the Council’s lower estimate.


Green Means Go

April 30, 2010 by

We can’t resist pointing out a management tactic in New Hampshire that we spotted in the CSG report we discussed yesterday:

One key procedural change at the state agency level that may have had an impact on greasing the wheels involved a simple piece of paper to green-light stimulus funded projects. Stimulus director Bud Fitch, the state’s deputy attorney general, required every stimulus project to have a green cover sheet that signified it was a “Go.”

“What the green paper does is it says when you come in in the morning and your routine stack is there, if halfway down the pile is something with a green paper, pull that out, do it immediately, send it on to the next step, where normally it might not be gotten to for two or three days or sometimes even a week,” Fitch said.

Sounds cool. But are other states still using stacks of paper, instead of emails or databases?

“Shovel Ready or Not?”

April 29, 2010 by

“Because states had to choose projects quickly and in many cases chose them well before the Recovery Act was even written, many either didn’t consider the distressed areas criteria until late in the planning process or used their own criteria rather than the federal requirements.”

That powerful comment about the distribution of transportation funds, comes from a recent Council of State Governments report, “Shovel Ready or Not?” The report examines four fundamental facets of highway stimulus spending: the speed with which states spent the money; where those dollars went; how the money was accounted for; and the impact of the spending on jobs and other measures. We recommend the entire report, but nuggets like the one quoted above were particularly interesting.

For example, the report notes that some high-unemployment states received less funding per capita than other states with lower unemployment. That was a direct result of the fact that ARRA relied on existing federal programs and formulas for its allocations.

There’s also some fascinating commentary on the tension between spending speedily and spending well. States that were hard-pressed to get all the funds expended quickly, as we’ve noted in earlier posts, weren’t necessarily dawdlers, but in many cases were using the funds to tackle larger, longer-term projects than the states which spent more quickly. The CSG report highlights Florida’s efforts to build interchanges in Miami and Tampa as an example of those bigger projects.

The CSG also discusses whether a less than proportionate share of money, measured by population or economic impact went to urban areas. It is a tricky question that gets to the challenge of prioritizing the nation’s transportation needs. The short answer seems to be that less money did go to cities. The longer answer is that, in many cases, it might have been impractical or undesirable to focus more money on cities at the expense of other distressed areas.

Finally, CSG underscores the difficulty of assessing the impact of the stimulus spending, not only with respect to complex job counts, but the even greater challenge of figuring out the long-term transportation benefits gained for the nation. As it currently stands, neither the states nor the federal government are able to provide a full performance impact of ARRA spending. Will they ever? Or will the stimulus’s legacy be written, as this report suggests, “state by state, community by community, project by project and job by job?”

“It Takes Time to Coordinate”

April 28, 2010 by

We’ve written about the headaches associated with the supplemental SWCAP process that states must use in order to recover some of their costs associated with administering federal stimulus dollars. But we thought that given the importance of this issue to the states, a little more background was in order. We turned to Clark Partridge, the helpful state comptroller in Arizona to take us through the story.

“In March, [2009]” he explained, “we had a conference of state comptrollers for NASACT. Very quickly it became clear and apparent that there was a major strategic weakness embedded in ARRA: there was money for the Recovery Activity and Transparency Board and for OMB, but not money to do these central oversight things at the state level.”

States worked with OMB to rectify that problem, but still didn’t receive guidance on how to apply SWCAP to stimulus dollars until mid-May 2009. As with any big program, that initial guidance had some wrinkles that needed to be ironed out before it could be effective. It wasn’t until summer that the situation was fully clarified, says Partridge.

AZ State Capitol Building

Of course, by that time, many state operations were already rolling. That created a problem not only in trying to adequately track how much time and resources were being spent managing the Recovery Act  prior to clear guidance—awfully hard when you aren’t sure exactly how you’ll be asked to track those expenditures—but also because, as Partridge explains, many state agencies were pushing money out the door quickly. So quickly, in fact, that Partridge figured all that money would be spent long before his office could recover their supplemental SWCAP costs. Much of the money would be spent within a year, while the reporting and managing could take three. (OMB finally agreed that estimated ARRA-specific costs could be “pulled forward” into the current year.)

What’s more, state agencies were often dealing with guidance that conflicted with what they were hearing from OMB. “They were receiving instructions from their federal agencies,” says Partridge. “Some of that was not the top of the federal agencies who were working with OMB. Some was from regional federal agency offices–quite a ways removed from the OMB.”

“It takes time to coordinate all those things,” he explains, “they are all brand new issues.”

When all was said and done, Arizona’s supplemental SWCAP plan was finally submitted in August and approved in October. And that isn’t the end of the story.

Just days before the state’s plan was approved, the federal Department of Education made some adjustments in allowable state expenses. Arizona didn’t even find out about those changes until December and was still trying to sort things out in the new year.

Accurate or not?

April 27, 2010 by

An audit that came out of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office several months ago frets that the federal government’s job reporting system “provides little assurance that the information state agencies report to the federal government is accurate. While there are criteria that relate to the specific reporting requirements of state agencies, there are no criteria on how states as single entities should manage the overall reporting of ARRA funds.”

Louisiana, itself, is an interesting case. For one thing, it is one of five states, along with Alaska, Arkansas, Maryland, and Texas, that haven’t established an official czar. In addition, Louisiana has opted for a decentralized stimulus data reporting system. In other words, in Louisiana, agencies are self-verifying their numbers and it isn’t clear to the auditors how and by whom the accuracy of those numbers is being checked at the end of the process. “Louisiana,” the audit reads, “is primarily depending on guidance provided by the federal government to oversee the ARRA program and ensure the information state agencies report is accurate.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the process is or isn’t working, only that the auditor doesn’t seem able to be certain. From the auditor’s perspective, policies are being followed, and yet, as Nicole Edmonson, Performance Audit Manager, says, “In our report we just pointed out that it is kind of hard to say who is responsible for the funds. As the legislative auditor we’re not going to say how things should be done—we’re only going to say how things are being done. Is there going to be enough accountability in there? I would have to say I hope so.”

Survey: Tracking Stimulus Spending, Rating Coverage, Suggesting Future Post Topics

April 26, 2010 by

We’d like to hear your opinions on Stimulus tracking and coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  We’d also like your input to help us develop topics for future posts.

Take our survey.

Long-term thinking in New Mexico

April 23, 2010 by

Part of our incentive for starting this blog was to shed more light on the actual performance benefits of stimulus dollars, as opposed to just “jobs, jobs, jobs,” in the words of the GAO’s Stan Czerwinski.

With that in mind, we were delighted to see a press release from New Mexico that quotes Arturo L. Jaramillo, Secretary of the General Services Department, there.  Jamarillo was talking about energy efficiency projects in state buildings: .”These projects must realize energy savings per dollar spent. Reducing utility costs through high efficiency upgrades such as these will result in millions of tax dollars saved in the long term.”

That’s just the ticket, as far as we’re concerned. The key, of course, is doing the follow-up to see whether those dollars are actually saved, after the fact. We’ll be checking with New Mexico and other states, on that front, as time goes on.

In any case, performance benefits are not inconsistent with the desire to help the state’s economy in the short term. New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson recently cited the Council of Economic Advisers report, “that says the Recovery Act is responsible for creating 16,000 jobs in New Mexico to date.”

Measures for Workforce Training . . . A Minnesota Audit’s Critique

April 22, 2010 by

Last week, the Department of Labor announced the availability of $90 million in added Recovery Act funding for on-the-job training opportunities.  “States and their partners will use this funding to create on-the-job training experiences, which will improve the employment prospects of dislocated workers in areas that have been hard hit by the recent economic downturn,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis

It seems to us that there needs to be a solid system of measurement that will allow state and federal observers to see the impact this money has. Maybe one has already been developed for this newly revitalized program.

But we sure hope it is better than the federal measures that are currently in place for tracking the success of more traditional workforce training programs. The latter were recently panned in a Minnesota legislative audit, which cited problems that will be very familiar  to long-term government observers who recognize some of the same measurement headaches that afflicted the Job Training Partnership Act back in the 1980s.

The audit mentioned four major issues.

1.       Federal measures allow programs to be selective in whom they help. As the audit says “The measures do not distinguish among clients with different capabilities.” If a workforce training program places a former inmate with little schooling, the accomplishment is viewed as having the same value as  placing a skilled person with a college degree. One program director told the audit crew that her agency “avoided enrolling individuals in the adult program if they appeared unlikely to succeed.”

2.       Gaming program data is easy. The Minnesota audit found that workforce training programs routinely timed the entrance and exit from programs to generate the most favorable results. The fact that there are no rules for establishing when someone enters or exits a program makes it impossible to accurately compare different entities. (If a person gets a job, some service areas wait until the last day of the quarter to decide to exit the person from the program. If he still has a job on the last day of the quarter, the program can count on a record of employment the subsequent quarter – which starts the next day.)

3.       Measurement and evaluation continues to focus on the short-term. There is currently no requirement to look at the impact of the workforce training programs beyond a nine-month period. In our minds, the real goal of training programs is to keep people in jobs, not just get them into jobs in the first place.

4.       There are no requirements to test the impact of programs by comparing individuals who receive services with those who have similar characteristics but didn’t receive services.

The Government Accountability Office has commented on these issues frequently in the past and we know the Department of Labor has tried to make improvements in its approach. But it’s clear from this audit, that there’s a great distance that still needs to be traveled to arrive at a useful way of evaluating workforce training.  In the Minnesota legislative audit, at least one program director characterized federal measurement requirements as “one of the biggest impediments to the effective delivery of workforce programs. “

Heading Over the Funding Cliff?

April 21, 2010 by

It almost goes without saying that getting advance payments on stimulus dollars in order to balance current years’ budgets is a perilous path. This notion – which Rhode Island legislators are advocating – just allows states to delay, until the very last minute, balancing their budgets without this extra cash.

Many observers are deeply concerned about filling the void when the stimulus money dries up – whether it’s accelerated or not. Though the national economy is showing signs of improvement in some sectors, state budgets will hardly be able to fully recover by the time the stimulus money disappears.

Turns out, too,  that there’s an even more immediate risk. Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist warned the state’s General Assembly yesterday that pulling forward more federal stimulus money from next year in order to balance the state budget this year could jeopardize the state’s ability to access those stimulus funds altogether.

She explains that, in order to receive stimulus funds, states have to prove they haven’t cut K-12 spending significantly or relative to all budget cuts. If Rhode Island pulls stimulus education funds forward and uses them for the non-education portion of the budget, it could run afoul of that federal requirement.

Rhode Island isn’t alone, we should note, in using or trying to use the bulk of its education stimulus dollars today and leaving less for the next fiscal year. As this story indicates, several states–including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey and Washington–have already used all of their stimulus education funding, leaving zero of those dollars for the coming school year. We hope they aren’t setting themselves up to drop off the funding cliff.

The Health IT Challenge

April 21, 2010 by

Jed Seltzer, executive director of the New Jersey Health Information Technology Commission, says when it comes to developing health information exchanges getting all the stakeholders on the same page is at least as daunting a task as solving the purely technological issues.

These exchanges are the building blocks of what will become a national system for exchanging patient data in real time between providers. Seltzer explains what he works on every day in New Jersey, “Trying to get 30,000 doctors and 73 hospitals to even think about digitizing their records and then getting them to do it in a way that is ‘meaningful use’ and then getting it interoperable. That is such a tough haul in terms of education and outreach.”

With that in mind – and with $20 billion stimulus dollars going to health IT– we were intrigued by a note we spotted over the weekend about how little the public even knows about the potential uses of health IT. This is an important question, because the public’s input is key to engaging people in the development of a “meaningful use” definition. This definition will help providers decide what technologies they should adopt and how that technology needs to be used in order to meet federal requirements and, more importantly, in order to best serve patients nationally.

Jeff Rowe, the post’s author, wrote,

In short, it seems safe to assume that while health care stakeholders and observers are more than familiar with the HIT landscape, much of the general public still is not.

While it is certainly true that stakeholders will be more informed than the general public regarding health IT, we wonder if Rowe is overestimating the level of understanding on the part of insiders. If this kind of technology follows the path of many before it, we suspect that many engaged stakeholders are still in the dark regarding its complexities, its benefits, and its risks.

We’re going to be following the development of these exchanges in the states and look forward to seeing the ways they tackle the enormous technological and managerial challenges.