Posts Tagged ‘weatherization’

Things actually could be finer…in Carolina

May 11, 2010

Most states have had problems implementing the stimulus weatherization program in a timely way. But we’ve never heard of a string of bad luck and sorrow quite like North Carolina’s. Here’s the story, as related in the Greensboro News & Record:

  • The money set aside for weatherization was only a small piece of the 2009 stimulus bill, but it was more than 10 times the amount North Carolina regularly receives from the federal program for such efforts.
  • The man who had been running the program died suddenly from a stroke just as the massive influx of cash was heading to North Carolina.
  • At the same time, last year’s state budget transferred the State Energy Office and weatherization program from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Commerce. That change meant a refiling of paperwork with the federal government.
  • That bureaucratic shuffle delayed work at the state level until September, said State Energy Office spokesman Seth Effron. Money didn’t begin to filter to the nonprofits until November.
  • “And then in December and January, in terms of agencies getting things done, there were weather problems,” he said.

The result, according to the article, is that the state has completed barely one-tenth of the 22,203 housing units that could be weatherized with stimulus money.


Speeding up Weatherization: Michigan’s Solution

April 14, 2010

The GAO has documented that almost 90 percent of homes set to be weatherized are subject to historical preservation review. Whether or not they had that startling number in front of them, officials in Michigan’s  State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) saw that they were confronting an enormous obstacle to getting weatherization money out. In Michigan alone, 34,000 homes would be affected and would need review.

Historic Linton Hall on the MSU campus

“Neither the Department of Energy nor the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation were giving guidance on how to handle this,” says Martha MacFarlane-Faes, Michigan’s Environmental Review Coordinator. But solutions needed to be found, and they were, through a collaboration between the State Historical Preservation Office, its Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Development.

What emerged is an interdepartmental agreement that slices the number of buildings that need to be reviewed by SHPO staff by 80%. One big move was a matter of simple common sense. With limited staff available, the decision was reached to skip review on homes needed relatively minor work (caulking or weather-stripping, for instance).

Similarly, the decision was made that if a house wasn’t so old, there was little likelihood it would be evaluated as historical. “If you are in a 1970’s building,” MacFarlane-Faes says, “we aren’t interested.” This seems like simple common sense. But such common sense can easily fall by the wayside in complying with complex directives. And it didn’t here.

What’s more, the whole matter impelled the state to digitize SHPO review processes. “We have been relying on snail mail,” explains MacFarlane-Faes. “That can take two or three weeks and that delays things right there.” In June, the new digital system will allow construction teams to submit review applications (a description and a photo of the structure) electronically. In time, having everything digital might also help the office perform more sophisticated analyses of historic homes and districts.

“There has been added emphasis on upgrading technology because of Governor Granholm’s commitment to efficiently distributing ARRA funds in Michigan,” says McFarlane-Faes, “Without her backing, I’m not sure we would have been able to do it in a timely manner, if at all.”

Why weatherization dollars have been delayed

April 7, 2010

Two recent reports, one from the GAO and one from the Department of Energy’s Inspector General, both address the delays states have had in using stimulus dollars to get their homes weatherized due to a variety of issues. You may recall that we recently posted a video  of Washington’s Governor Christine Gregoire fulminating about this issue.

The biggest single obstacle has come in complying with the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates that the U.S. Department of Labor set wage rates for federally funded or assisted projects.  It requires that workers involved in such efforts be paid according to prevailing wages for their jobs and geographic region.  But what makes this requirement so time consuming? We were curious, talked to some smart folks in several states, and thought we’d fill you in on some of the reasons that Davis-Bacon has slowed progress.

  1. Figuring out the local prevailing wage usually means a county-by-county survey. In job areas, like weatherization, that hadn’t previously dealt with Davis-Bacon requirements, surveys had to be done after the money already started to flow. The wage guidance wasn’t completed until last October.
  2. Part of the difficulty of determining rates for workers in this field is that weatherization encompasses a broad variety of jobs, from electrical work to heating or ductwork to carpentry or welding.
  3. Even though the Secretaries of Labor and Energy insisted in July 2009 that weatherization work could begin before the wage determinations were completed, many states and their contractors were unwilling to take on the additional headache of figuring out back pay, should they have over- or underestimated payments to workers—especially when some of those workers might have moved on to different jobs by the time the certifications came out.
  4. Finally, one somewhat strange provision complicated and slowed the situation even further: weatherization projects in buildings taller than four stories required that workers be paid commercial prevailing wage rates, which are higher than those that would otherwise be used for weatherization projects.

In Washington and elsewhere, weatherization is finally getting on track, if a bit later and perhaps a bit more expensively than some had hoped. All seems to be improving, but it’s a little premature to declare sunny days ahead. We’ll tell you more about this soon.

Conflicting goals, weatherization and a little about soccer

April 6, 2010

One of our very favorite Governing columns that we’ve written over the years was about performance measurement and girls’ soccer. As we watched our daughter play, we noticed we were seeing some of the same performance issues come up as we’d seen in government. One of the chief problems was that of conflicting goals. Coaches said they wanted to develop players and win games, but doing both those things simultaneously was tricky. If you played your best kids all the time, you might win, but you wouldn’t do as much as you could to develop the skills of the bottom half of the team. If you played your weaker players – thus developing them – it was likelier that you’d lose.

Sandy Greene, daughter and performance measure

We can’t help notice that the Recovery Act is also struggling with a passel of conflicting goals. The area that has been most significantly paralyzed by this problem has been weatherization. The Recovery Act sought to spur economic growth, create jobs and lower energy bills by providing insulation, caulking, weather stripping, etc., to low income families. But the goal was also to make sure that the jobs paid the prevailing wage. Since weatherization work had not been covered by this requirement before, the arduous and detailed task of calculating and setting proper wage rates fell to the Department of Labor, and then the Department of Energy had to help states figure out how to certify that these payroll requirements were met.

Hence the delay. On March 5, California auditor Elaine Howle testified before the Committee on House Oversight and Government Reform that when the auditor’s office finished its fieldwork in December, no houses had yet been weatherized in California even though $93 million had been available since the end of July. By February, the Department of Community Services told the audit office that 210 homes had been weatherized. Putting aside the fact that Howle seemed a bit dubious of this number in her testimony, those 210 houses still fell far short of the state goal of weatherizing 1,433 houses per month.

There are lessons to be learned here, and we think one of the primary ones is for government decision-makers to assess early on where worthwhile, but conflicting goals — like getting work done speedily and setting up a complex new payroll structure — may end up causing problems.

We’re going to cover more about the technical side of this issue in a couple of upcoming posts.

“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.)

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