Posts Tagged ‘state websites’

Trying to meet “a gold standard”

April 5, 2010

We recently interviewed Chris Patton, Recovery Act director in Wisconsin, to find out more about the improvements to the Wisconsin stimulus website.

Stimulus-supported school construction bonds in Wisconsin

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.

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Wisconsin: Better and better

March 31, 2010

Back when we started to evaluate the management of state and local governments about twenty years ago, we noticed a curious phenomenon. Governments that were weak in this field, tended to be relatively satisfied with what they were doing. By contrast, ambitious governments were often the most aggressive at figuring out how to improve still further. We thought of this phenomenon the other day when we saw that Wisconsin had just announced improvements to its stimulus website.

In the Good Jobs First evaluation of websites that we wrote about in early March, Wisconsin was ranked fourth (tied with Minnesota, and Colorado, and just behind Maryland, Kentucky and Connecticut). We turned to our friends at Good Jobs First to see which of the new Wisconsin features they found most worthy of notice.

Here’s what research analyst Thomas Cafcas says:

One great new feature  is a search box that combs the recovery act data for the state:

They also posted some distress metrics including county foreclosure rates:

Another feature we like is the mapping of recovery act bond allocations:

A big improvement is the disclosure of wages related to recovery act jobs across all sectors and a distribution of disadvantaged contracts.  (Cafcas believes the labeling could be clearer, though, and he said he’d also like to see more demographic information relating to workers who benefited.)

Coming up soon: A short interview we did with Wisconsin’s Recovery Act Director Chris Patton

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.

Ranking the websites — additional thoughts

March 10, 2010

Though we found the website rankings done by Good Jobs First really interesting, it didn’t surprise us that some state officials think the effort missed the mark.

Gerry Oligmueller, the astute and thoughtful state budget administrator of Nebraska, for example, questioned whether states should be supplying much of the same information already available on the federal Recovery.gov site. “We aren’t trying to emulate or duplicate recovery.gov,” he told us. “We don’t feel that is in the interest of the U.S. or Nebraska taxpayer. If people want to track it down to the GIS dot, then recovery.gov provides that feature.”

To be clear, Nebraska’s site – recovery.nebraska.gov — does provide some state-level ARRA expenditure information, but it primarily serves as a conduit for resource and contact information—what funds are available and who to call about them. “We knew the web allowed us to eliminate a thousand phone calls a week. People were asking, ‘What is the money available for and where do I go to find out information for it,’” Oligmueller explains, “and a lot of that was driven by the fact that the federal government didn’t have all that information out there.”

We asked Greg LeRoy and Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First what they thought about this. Their response was, essentially, that state websites should be supplying even more details than appear on the federal website on how they are using the money.

LeRoy and Mattera strike an “if-not-now-when” note, saying that all levels of government are facing rising expectations for transparency and performance reporting. “The recovery act websites are fueling that expectation but it was already underway,” says LeRoy, who is the executive director of Good Jobs First. “We view this is as a two-year crash course in state disclosure,” adding that Good Jobs First is also ramping up to revisit its 2007 report “The State of State Disclosure.”

Other state officials we’ve talked to note that Good Jobs First gives credit to states that had pre-existing performance reporting websites and punishes those that didn’t. While we understand the logic there, it feels to us like however a state develops a superior site, it deserves to get credit for it.

Ranking the stimulus websites

March 9, 2010

All fifty states have set up websites that report on the way they’ve implemented the stimulus bill. Anyone who visits more than a handful of these sites will be immediately struck at the remarkable variety in quality. Some have clearly taken a great deal of thought, time and effort. Others seem like afterthoughts.

After a first stab at evaluating websites last July, Good Jobs First, tackled the task again in January. The organization is devoted to promoting government and corporate accountability in economic development. The broad conclusion of its new website evaluation: “A growing number of state ARRA sites deliver on President Obama’s promise that the stimulus plan would be carried out with an ‘unprecedented level of transparency and accountability.’ Yet some remain half-hearted efforts that provide taxpayers little useful data on the largest federal stimulus since the new deal.”

Some states may well have improved their sites since the release of this report. We, personally, know of a handful that are in the process of doing so now. But we think that the report’s interesting findings are still valid. Some of the points that jumped out at us:

  • “More than half the states (28) now have some kind of project mapping feature on their ARRA site. Of these, 14 have interactive maps with significant project details, while 13 have such maps with more limited details.”
  • “Only three states – – Kentucky, Maryland and Wisconsin – juxtapose the geographic distribution of spending with patterns of economic distress or need within the state.”
  • “Despite the ready availability of Recovery.gov ARRA employment data, 10 states have no jobs data on their websites: Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina and the District of Columbia.” (Note: the report counts Washington D.C. as a 51st state)
  • Only five states – Connecticut Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi and New Hampshire provide the full texts of at least some ARRA contract awards.”

As of the report’s publication, the half dozen top rated states were: Maryland, Kentucky, Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The bottom six were North Dakota, Washington D.C., Missouri, Alaska, Vermont and Louisiana.

Stay tuned. In coming days we’ll be sharing an interesting conversation with Beth Blauer, the director of the Maryland StateStat program. She oversees the website that was rated number one by Good Jobs First.