Posts Tagged ‘accountability’

From the auditor’s seat

April 9, 2010

In upcoming weeks, we’ll be talking with local and state auditors about their observations about the Recovery Act and how it’s affecting their work. If you’re curious to see some examples of how local auditors are approaching the challenges of monitoring Recovery Act dollars, the Association of Local Government Auditors has set up a web page to collect local audits relating to the stimulus.  To date, a similar repository has not been established on the state side, according to the National State Auditors Association. But the Recovery Board has asked states to send in Recovery Act audits and a small collection is developing in the accountability section.


“Are you spending more time to report than to deal with programmatic responsibilities?”

April 1, 2010

We like transparency. We like statistics. We like up-to-date data.

But even we feel pity for stimulus grantees faced with a monsoon of reporting requirements. Beginning with March 30th reports, the federal Department of Energy has started to require monthly updates for weatherization assistance grants, energy efficiency grants, and state energy program grants. So many state officials are concerned about this that the Council of State Governments, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Governors Association sent a joint letter to the Department of Energy in order to register their frustration with the proposed change.

Chris Whatley, who heads the Council on State Governments’ Washington office, is concerned that the additional reporting burden could stymie the growth of green jobs – an area already lagging thanks to labor and procurement guidelines and other factors. A recent CSG report found that barely more than 2% of all ARRA jobs in the first quarter of reporting had been green jobs. “They have been slow and have been criticized and now you are going to triple their reporting requirements,.” Whatley told us. Perhaps more than triple; from what we understand, these monthly reports are in addition to the quarterly reports–which means some redundant reporting every third month.

Evan Curtis, who works in the Utah Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, notes that, for the most part, the people doing the work in areas like weatherization are also the people doing the reporting. That means, he says, “For every hour you take away for these reports you are literally taking away an hour that could have been spent weatherizing.”

Matt Fritz, an ARRA coordinator in Connecticut, understands the DOE’s motivation, “There is so much criticism of these major numbers and they want to offset that by saying ‘these are the things that are really happening, here’s what the money is really used for.’” But Fritz is nonetheless anxious that the reporting is beginning to crowd out the doing: “You end up spending a week every month to gear up to report. Are you spending more time to report than to deal with programmatic responsibilities?”

While it’s the DOE that has the states jittery now, there’s also concern about other agencies making the same requests. “Once the DOE does it,” Curtis asks, “what is to stop the other agencies from doing monthly too?”

Reading list

March 25, 2010

We wanted to catch you up on two important reports about the stimulus that came out of the Inspector General community  in recent weeks.

For a sobering account of capacity issues at the federal level in the administration and oversight of Recovery Act dollars, take a look at the Commerce Department Inspector General report about staffing issues for contracts and grants. The report, which included a comprehensive survey of other federal agencies, noted that 40 percent of respondents from the largest agencies thought Recovery Act staffing was inadequate, and another 45 percent said it was adequate but was reducing capacity to handle non-Recovery Act projects.  For a journalistic account of the report, check out Government Executive’s March 12 article on the stress of the additional workload.

Details on the  trials and tribulations of Recovery Act weatherization efforts came from the Inspector General of the Department of Energy about a month ago. The report provides a concise and readable account of the reasons weatherization plans were significantly delayed across the country, including the well-publicized issues that stemmed from Davis-Bacon Act wage requirements. The report also addresses multiple state and local capacity issues resulting from state budget shortfalls, hiring freezes and furloughs.  If you’re interested in state comparisons, Appendix II shows how the states stack up against each other.  As of February 16, 2010,   Delaware, Mississippi and Ohio led the pack in terms of percentage of units completed.

Wanna see a Governor get results? Keep reading.

March 24, 2010

We’ve been concerned about the disconnect that sometimes exists between stimulus oversight offices and state performance measurement efforts.  On March 15th, we wrote about this a bit, and the following day,  we looked at how Maryland has connected its state’s performance effort with oversight and tracking of the stimulus.

Today, we move across the nation to Washington, another state that has doggedly pursued the stimulus-performance connection through its Government Management Accountability & Performance process.  Like similar programs that were inspired by the New York City police department’s famous CompStat effort, Washington’s GMAP uses data to drive performance improvements through meetings that include intense analysis and discussion. This can sometimes be a brutal experience for agency managers who are challenged to explain and defend what they’re doing.

But it sure can drive results — at least if the people involved don’t like finding themselves square in the bulls-eye. In this clip, you’ll see a disappointed Gov. Christine Gregoire in action, expressing her dismay at the slow pace of weatherization that occurred in the first quarter of stimulus reporting.  This particular GMAP session was held in November and focused entirely on the Recovery Act in Washington. (GMAP sessions are held frequently at the agency level and monthly with the state’s big brass; the next one that focuses exclusively on the stimulus will be in June.)

We can’t prove direct cause and effect, but it’s worth noting that the following month, the Governor gave the same department kudos for the work it did in speeding up the weatherization effort. While the state had barely made a dent on its weatherization plans last fall (47 out of 500 projected units), by last week it had completed 2419, surpassing its goal of 2400 by the end of March.

If you’re interested, you can see the full hour and ten minute GMAP Recovery Act session. In the full video, the part about weatherization begins at about 3:20 and ends at 20:47. It shows Department of Commerce Secretary Rogers  Weed on the hot seat as he explains to the Governor how the state’s efforts fell dramatically short of initial projections. (This was a problem experienced in many other states, by the way.)

California’s take on and the State’s New Stimulus Website

March 23, 2010

Shortly after we posted our last  blog entry (“Before the Phone Starts Ringing. . .) we heard from Eric W Alborg the  Communications Director for the California Recovery Task Force.

He had some very germane thoughts about the federal government’s website — and improvements he’d like to see made. We thought we’d share them with you here:

“There are several improvements that could be made to that the California Recovery Task Force feels would be of great benefit to Californians in our effort to provide the utmost transparency,” he told us. “California would like to be able to download or obtain all of the inferred data, which includes everything in the posted data dictionary.  We’d also like all of the Geocoded information, so that we can ensure we map projects and data correctly and have the ability to cross check.  Lastly, we’d like to have a direct contact at to address any errors or problems with California’s data that we find.”

Any thoughts on this topic from other states? We’d love to hear them.

Meanwhile, kudos to California for the redesign of its own Recovery Act website, which went live today.  Included in the new site are:  success stories that highlight the human impact of Recovery Act dollars in California; a resource that outlines special opportunities for small business, non-profits and disadvantaged business enterprises; and, most notably, a map that features ways to sort by county, city or area of investment such as education or transportation. It also features locations of every Recovery Act project in the state with project-specific information such as budget, recipient and project description.

“Before the phone starts ringing. . . .”

March 23, 2010

Anyone  interested in stimulus spending quickly grows familiar with the federal government’s website. It’s a comprehensive spot for citizens to get information on what’s happening in individual states. Curiously, it also turns out that 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  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 and validate that information.” Worse yet, reports Weber, “It is sometimes hard to understand where they got the information that is on”

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.”

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

March 16, 2010

Blauer: "The Governor lives and breathes StateStat"

Beth Blauer is director of the Maryland Executive Department’s StateStat office. In that role, she oversees Maryland’s much-praised efforts to manage the state through widely disseminated performance measures. This was modeled, to some extent, on ground-breaking efforts in Baltimore, when  Governor Martin O’Malley was mayor there.

As in Washington and a few other states, Maryland has connected its tracking of stimulus dollars to other performance reporting mechanisms.  In a move that makes good sense to us, it launched its stimulus website on the back of the work it had already done with StateStat – and Blauer was put in charge. She also became, in her words, the “de facto stimulus czar.”  Largely as a result of the work done in the past, the online stimulus material was ranked as best in the country in Good Jobs First’s evaluation of state stimulus websites.

We thought it might be interesting to hear what Blauer had to say about  this work, and she was kind enough to spend a chunk of time chatting. Following some excerpts from our conversation.

Q. Maryland’s stimulus tracking was top of the pack in the Good Jobs First evaluation.  What separates Maryland from other states, in your view?

BB: A lot of states are struggling to bridge the gap between accountability with the financial data and the need for accountability and transparency on a management level. We had this highly scrutinized accountability and performance measurement program in place already.  So, we were able to immediately gear up.

Q. In what ways have you linked the spending of stimulus dollars in Maryland to program results?

BB: As much as possible, we’ve connected the tracking of the stimulus dollars with the performance information we have through StateStat. I’m director of StateStat and the de facto stimulus czar. It’s useful to have the same person have both these responsibilities because they’re both concerned with performance and reporting. We want to use this information so we can make the right choices of where to spend the money and we want to use the data on a management level.

The Governor lives and breathes StateStat and he’s looking at the map that shows stimulus activity all the time. I think that’s the most important message – if you don’t have your leaders buying in to it and heavily relying on the tools, you’re not going to have a tool that’s fully used.

The Governor was very interested in the creation of the map. He was sitting next to me and involved down to the choices of the icons. He wanted the map to show more than just the distribution of dollars, he wanted it tied to performance measurement. That’s the principle. He gets it.

Q. States are required to track the jobs that are being funded with the stimulus dollars. What are some of the other ways you’re tracking the use of the stimulus dollars on your website?

BB: We’ve been measuring how quickly our contracts are going out to bid and we’re looking at the percentage of minority business enterprises that are getting our Recovery Act contracts. We’re not relenting on that. We have a goal of 25 percent.

On weatherization, we wanted to connect the weatherization program with the state’s energy assistance program. We’re making it a goal to prioritize the people who get weatherization money, by looking for those who are also receiving cash assistance from the state to help pay energy bills. That way the state’s costs will go down when individual utility costs drop. So, we’ll track who gets the service and we’ll track the impact that has on energy bills. I’m working out how to depict this on the map without having to go down to the individual house level.

We’re also tracking the number of people who are going through weatherization training, so they can work in those jobs.

Q.  A lot of states are now using the same map that you’re using. How did that happen?

BB: We worked with ESRI, a company that specializes in geographic information systems, to create the tools under the condition that they’d share it with other states. We worked very hard to develop it. Now there are over 20 other states with the exact same map

But that doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily linked to performance. Washington State has some performance linkages and Massachusetts is working on it. New York City is doing a great job.

Q. Are there areas in which you think Maryland has gone beyond other states?

BB: We’re the only state right now that’s extensively using needs data. For example, we had to make decisions about where transit money was going.  If you look at our map under transportation, you can see we’ve color coded the areas in the state where there are high percentages of individuals who don’t have motor vehicles. Those are the spots that may have more need of transit dollars. We knew that Baltimore would be one of those areas, but the map also shows us that there was a justification for Garrett County, in the western part of the state, getting some new buses.

Q. What do you have planned going forward?

BB: For every single funding area, I have a wish list of performance metrics. I’d like to continue to draw connections, as we did with weatherization and energy assistance. I’d like to think about how we can speed up some of the milestones and goals that we’ve had. For example, with an infusion of dollars going to water projects, can we create a faster-paced change in the health of the Chesapeake Bay?

Q. What’s the biggest challenge for you with tying Recovery Act dollars to performance?

BB: This is hard, because it’s a fast-paced program and the majority of the dollars that are coming to the state are for programs that are very well developed, like the increase in the Medicaid match.

The biggest struggle I have in mapping the recovery data is trying to isolate the direct impact that the federal investment has had.

Q. Do you have any disappointments with what you’ve done so far?

A. I’ve been surprised that there hasn’t been more public engagement. Every place on our map, we have a way that a user can directly communicate with us. I was looking forward to that public engagement as part of the transparency. But we’re not getting the response we were expecting. That’s an area in which we can really strengthen our program.

Keeping up with the GAO

March 8, 2010
Keeping up with the Government Accountability Office’s reports about the Recovery Act is a pretty demanding undertaking. But we’re going to try to do so on your behalf, and offer you summaries of the most important reports as they come out (as well as links to others).
The most comprehensive new report was the GAO’s major 174-page look at the Recovery Act “One Year Later”.  It gives a very clear picture of the pace at which dollars are being distributed, the vast array of oversight activities and a variety of agency specific topics (like the wage issues that have stalled the delivery of weatherization funds).
A few of its important points:

* Data quality. For individuals who have been following the fracas in the press over the last six months about data issues — like jobs reported for Congressional Districts that don’t exist, double counted jobs, incorrect dollar figures, etc. — the GAO report is surprisingly comforting. Lots of improvements were put in place for the second reporting period, which ended on December 31, 2009. New simplified job data have helped increase accuracy, along with ways to flag potential errors as data is input. (For example, the system will now stop people from proceeding if they input a Congressional District that doesn’t match their zip code.)

* Maintenance of Effort. One of the trickier issues pertaining to the Recovery Act are the “maintenance of effort” requirements, particularly in transportation.  A continuing budget crisis, coupled with legislative cuts and changes, has made it difficult for many states to certify to DOT that the stimulus money will actually be adding to previously planned spending. The Federal Highway Administration is expecting lots of states to send in revised certifications this week, according to the GAO. Whether or not states meet maintenance of effort requirements is likely to be an ongoing question.

* Capacity. As states and local governments grapple with all their responsibilities for reporting Recovery Act information, capacity questions continue to loom large. This problem will become increasingly acute as beleaguered budgets necessitate layoffs and temporary furloughs. For example: The GAO reports that capacity has been a barrier in housing agencies, causing some to bypass applying for competitive grants. This is particularly a problem for smaller agencies. Capacity issues also create obstacles for small agencies in particular in dealing with the distribution of weatherization dollars and the administrative requirements

Here are the two other GAO reports that came out last week.

Recovery Act: California’s Use of Funds and Efforts to Ensure Accountability
Recovery Act: Factors Affecting the Department of Energy’s Program Implementation

Race to the Top: A New Beginning?

March 4, 2010
There’s a pot of cash and the states can come and get it – if they follow the desired performance standards. . . . In the case of Race to the Top, “the very sweet carrot,” as  Posner puts it, has created real momentum for reform at the state level.

Around 1:00 P.M. today, the Department of Education announced that 15 states and the District of Columbia have been selected as finalists for the first installment of  “Race to the Top,” grants. This much-discussed element of the  stimulus was designed to spur innovation and performance improvement in state education systems. The finalists were picked out of 41 applicants. Those that were turned away – as well as new entrants — will have an opportunity to try again in the second round.

The finalists: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

The importance of Race to the Top goes a lot deeper than this set of grants. The Government Accountability Office and others who focus on performance have long been looking at ways that grants can be more performance oriented. [See the September, 2006 GAO report on “Enhancing Performance Accountability” in grant management.]

If Race to the Top is successful, it may help to usher in a new era in which competitive selection is used by the federal government in a way that could motivate states, counties or cities to focus more closely on improvements in performance outcomes.

The federal grants were scored based on 30 selection criteria. States moved forward on a number of fronts over the last year in order to make themselves more attractive candidates. According to an early January Education Week article about Race to the Top inspired reforms, the application criteria encouraged Alabama Governor Bob Riley to call for legislative action to permit charter schools. A number of other states, similarly, changed laws that limited charters.

One of the key requirements for applicants is the ability to link student achievement data to teacher evaluation. That led governors in Tennessee and Maine to push for legislative measures that would facilitate that connection. Last October, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger worked with the legislature to remove a data firewall that prohibited the use of test scores to evaluate teachers.  That barrier “would have put the state out of the running for the Race to the Top,” wrote Erik Robelen in Education Week.

Paul Posner

We talked with ever-helpful Paul Posner (left)  about this a few days ago. Now director of the Masters in Public Administration program at George Mason University, Posner had a long and distinguished career at the Government Accountability Office, which he left in 2005. He sees Race to the Top as a departure from a more punitive compliance-oriented federal approach that sparked tremendous state resistance to both the No Child Left Behind and Real ID programs. In contrast, Race to the Top didn’t impose rules or standards on states, he says, but harked back to methods of the Great Society and New Deal, using cooperative federalism and relying on the “catalytic role that grants can play.”

The idea is that there’s a pot of cash and the states can come and get it – if they follow the desired performance standards. If you don’t want the money, you don’t have to play.  In the case of Race to the Top, “the very sweet carrot,” as Posner puts it, has created real momentum for reform at the state level.

“The whole Recovery Act has regenerated interest in federal grants as a tool to promote new national policies. Race to the Top is a pull rather than a push. It has the potential to change priorities and standards over time.”