Posts Tagged ‘workload capacity’

“It Takes Time to Coordinate”

April 28, 2010

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.


“It didn’t seem worth going through that headache. . . .”

April 20, 2010

All the money going to states for the federal stimulus needs to be managed, tracked, and reported. That oversight costs money. The federal government did come up with one means for recovering some of that overhead. But the states aren’t all so happy about it.

The so-called supplemental Statewide Cost Allocation Plan, or SWCAP (it rhyme with skycap) allows states to shift a portion of the programmatic federal funds they receive to cover the cost of administering those funds. It’s not a huge chunk of cash: only one-half of one-percent of the total spending.

SWCAP has actually been around awhile as a way for states to recoup the dollars spent administering federal programs. But when it comes to the stimulus process, it’s particularly problematic. For one thing,  there’s no prior experience on which to base estimates of these expenses, unlike most other federal programs. What’s more, because of the narrow window of time in which ARRA will exist, working out how to deal with over- or underestimates two years down the line could give state administrators nightmares.

And states can’t simply switch the funds from the program bucket to the oversight bucket. They need to get federal approval for their administrative costs. And that process can be onerous—so much so that some states have chosen not to do it. Mike Schaub, of Washington state’s Office of Financial Management, explains that recovering the administrative expenses through SWCAP would have meant more paperwork and changing a lot of timekeeping and other practices in his office. “It didn’t seem worth going through that headache,” he told us

Don Winstead

Even states that are going through the SWCAP process have mixed feelings about it. Florida stimulus czar Don Winstead said, “SWCAP is not a very satisfactory solution for us, but it is the only option available. I’m not a big fan of taking money away from services to spend on administration.”

That might sound a bit like sour grapes—these are, after all, all funds that Florida wouldn’t have had otherwise. But because of the transaction costs of the SWCAP process itself, states using SWCAP are really trading a dollar worth of programs for less than a dollar of administrative funds. And that fact makes us a good deal more sympathetic to Winstead’s point.

We wonder if this problem will grow more challenging as states turn their attention from managing spending to measuring the impact of the dollars spent. If counting jobs and building websites pushes states to the limit, how will they have the capacity and wherewithal to measure programmatic and social outcomes? “Could you put together a sophisticated analysis?” asks Wyoming’s Lynne Boomgaarden. “Sure, but it would take resources and people.”

[Stay tuned: In the coming weeks we’ll likely have a piece or two on how the SWCAP process was chosen for ARRA oversight cost recovery and why the timeline itself dissuaded some states from applying for supplemental SWCAP funds.]

The cloud inside the silver lining

April 19, 2010

Curiously, sometimes having more money available for an entitlement program – through ARRA, for example –  can actually mean that while access improves, quality of service declines on certain measures.

Stimulus dollars have been used across the country to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).  But the  Texas auditor’s office discovered that with the increased case loads, wait times for applicants have gone way up. In 2006, 92 percent of applications were processed in a timely way, according to the audit. In the first part of Fiscal year 2010, that number had fallen to less than 70 percent.

One of the problems cited in the report is the fact that many of the workers hired to serve the growing population of food stamp recipients are new. Those who have less than two years experience are now 41 percent of the front line workforce – compared to four percent in Fiscal year 2005.

We wonder. Are these problems unique to Texas. Or does the Texas experience reflect what’s happening in other states as well?

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.”

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.