We recently interviewed Chris Patton, Recovery Act director in Wisconsin, to find out more about the improvements to the Wisconsin stimulus website.
Q. Wisconsin did very well on the Good Jobs First evaluation of state Recovery Act websites. What motivated you to make more improvements?
CP: We wanted to have as robust a tool as we could to explain to the public where the Recovery Act money was going and the impact it had on our economy. It’s a monumental effort. We’re really emphasizing that this has to be presented in a way that is easily understood by the average citizen.
Q. Will this experience have an impact on how the state reports on other programs?
CP: I think the emphasis on customer service, the emphasis on listening to the public will really pay dividends going forward.
Historically, this kind of information has been available, but not in a user friendly manner.
Q. What have you learned in doing this?
CP: We really tried to respond to what the public wants and to respond quickly. People are asking for information in a real time manner and typically, things can move slowly in state government.
We needed to learn how to be much more responsive in real time with the information we’re making available.
Initially, the federal Recovery website and ours was going to be updated quarterly. We realized and the public realized that there’s a lot going on and that they want to know what’s happening up-to-the-minute. Our website is now refreshed on a much more frequent basis, sometimes daily.
The public also had a much greater desire for details as to where the money is going, not only who is receiving it, but who the vendors and contractors are. We retooled the website to have that level of detail. We go down to basically any vendor payment that goes out the door. The federal payment standard is above $25,000, but we track spending down to a $10 hammer at Home Depot.
Q. What would you point out on your website as the key improvements?
CP: We give people the ability to download data – so you can take the information we present and get at the raw information and sort and compare. We had requests that made us consider different ways to access the information – for example, through local government identifiers or commercial districts.
There’s also an expanded search. You can input your zip code or look at it graphically on the map and you can zoom right in and see where recipients are, right down to your own street.
There’s a public policy side to having the level of detail that we do. With maps that overlay the unemployment rates in various communities, you can start to see where you are having impact and where you need to redouble effort. You can look at the per capita distribution.
Q. Wisconsin’s website seems to move faster than others. Do you know why?
CP: We charged our staff with meeting a gold standard. We have a set of products and tools that give us cutting edge technology on the back end of our website.
Q. Very few states have included information on where the bond money is going. Why do you feel this is important?
CP: The public doesn’t always understand that there’s a whole part of the Recovery Act that includes the bond provisions and tax credits. These are very important to stimulating our economy. We took it upon ourselves to make that information available to the public. This is a portion of the Recovery Act that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
With the bond program, we noticed that certain communities had expended their bonds and desired additional bonding allocations, but others hadn’t. We worked with the legislature to pool the unused bonds and target the communities that had the greatest need with products that were ready to go.
The geographic element, combined with the different data elements from the Commerce Department, was very helpful.
Q. What would you like to improve in the future?
CP: So much attention has gone to tracking the money, but there are a lot of other performance measures that the programs are undertaking. For example, the number of meals on wheels served. We hope to have additional details – not just what jobs are being funded, but truly understanding how programs are performing and the other benefits of the Recovery Act funding.
Q. What are the biggest challenges?
CP: Bringing the data together centrally is the challenge.
As we ramp up our performance monitoring efforts and collect other data elements and performance measures, we want to show unique program details. Are we meeting program goals in training dislocated workers? Are they not only being trained, but becoming employed?
The biggest barrier is the overall complexity of all the programs and the volume of data.