Accountability in government, post-stimulus: A conversation with Microsoft’s Josh Rice

This week Microsoft released Stimulus360, a SharePoint-based solution designed to help public sector agencies track, measure and share information about stimulus-funded projects. Josh Rice, Director of Microsoft’s Public Sector Incubation Team, was at the forefront of this new solution.

In an interview with CivSource, Mr. Rice explained how his team developed the functionality of Stimulus360, which reporting requirement is the most important piece of the Recovery Act, and how Microsoft is looking to make open government a permanent feature at all levels of public engagement.

Mr. Rice and his team are responsible for taking the latest and greatest Microsoft technologies to market in the public sector. He also identifies partners and solutions to build on top of existing Microsoft offerings to support the missions of his public sector customers. After speaking with these contacts, customers and partners in the public sector, Mr. Rice said that Microsoft saw an emerging need to help government address the unique reporting requirements outlined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

When Microsoft began having initial conversations with state and local government leaders, “we found they were using simple collaborative tools. Things like e-mail, spreadsheets and SharePoint were used to help them get their arms around the initial requirements,” Rice said. “But it wasn’t helping them report the information.”

As part of the Office of Management and Budget’s ongoing guidance, states are in the unique position of being both the grantors and the grantees, Mr. Rice explained. “A lot of government customers were frustrated with the lack of direction, and requirements for ARRA.” Questions like, where does the data come from? How does it need to be formatted? And a question of how to manage the data going between states, federal agencies and grantees was central to the development of Stimulus360. But that was only the immediate questions.

“Once funding was appropriated, there’s the management of stimulus dollars, grants and grant requests, and management of the projects themselves. We needed to provide a solution to tie everything together, to provide an end-to-end picture,” Mr. Rice said.

“There were really three pillars to the solution,” Mr. Rice explained, “management processes, reporting requirements, and economic impact.”

Grants, reporting requirements and economic impact

Grants.gov, the main portal to find and apply for federal government grants, said in March it expected a 60 percent increase in website traffic and application submissions between April and August as a result of Recovery Act funding. In April, the avalanche of applicants hit Grants.gov, causing the feared validation backlog. But, according to a May 2 Grants.gov blog post, “Grants.gov successfully received 30,000 applications over an 8-day period from April 20 – 27, nearly as many applications as we received in all of March.” The blog posting also stated, “We expect that validations will be able to keep up with submissions going forward.”

Through Microsoft360, government organizations and educational institutions can mobilize and track federal funding sources, requirements, and grant submission processes. By using Microsoft’s dashboards, analytics, and other performance management tools, officials can benchmark and track the full life-cycle of the project after the grant is awarded.

The reporting requirements mandated by ARRA haven’t yet provided specific guidance for the states, Mr. Rice says, “but what we’re hearing from customers is that the states will also need to report back on all stimulus spending to OMB or, possibly GAO.” In order to facilitate this exchange of information, Microsoft needed to create an easy-to-use reporting tool for both internal and external use.

The sheer volume of funds provided for in the Recovery Act meant that Microsoft needed to build a much more dynamic way for governments to track, report and publish information. “But a lot of what the states are gathering for ARRA is not new,” Mr. Rice pointed out. USASpending.gov already requires that federal agencies supply information on who receives what money for which project. But only for projects above $500,000 and information on sub-recipients – those agencies or contractors who receive the money after the state – are not required at USASpending.gov. The Recovery Act changes that. Now, states have to keep track of the money they receive, as well as the money it doles out. Stimulus360 provides a way for governments to track and report internally, among stakeholders and project managers, as well as externally, to the state or federal agency that awarded the money. Still, Microsoft wanted to help government measure the most important metric in gauging the effectiveness of the stimulus package – the economic impact.

The third and most unique pillar, according to Mr. Rice, is job creation and economic impact. “Under ARRA states have to ask and know the answers to questions like: How many jobs were created with this project? How is the economy impacted? We built in elements within the overall template to capture that information,” he said. “From grant approval through project implementation, officials need to be able to show how many jobs were retained or created – our goal was to take some of the heavy lifting out of the process for our customers,” Mr. Rice said.

“One of the most important pieces of the ARRA is the job creation piece.”

A solution for the future of government

A project lunched by Microsoft in early April was meant to answer the question of how to capture citizen feedback and engage people in participatory government. Although not directly linked to Stimulus360, this idea called Public Sector On-Demand has some obvious crossover that Mr. Rice and his team are looking to leverage. For example, one solution created in Public Sector On-Demand was the “Idea Elevator”

“The Idea Elevator is a feedback mechanism for government that lets officials receive comments and criticisms from the public regarding any issue or problem,” Mr. Rice explained. “A great example of this idea was the National IT Dialogue conducted by the Obama Administration.” The IT Dialogue drew a total of 2,629 information technology vendors and experts who posted and ranked 476 ideas for tracking and analyzing economic stimulus spending, according to a recent announcement at Recovery.gov.

Mr. Rice also spoke briefly about an upcoming Microsoft initiative called, the Open Government Data Initiative. “OGDI (pronounced og-dy) will illustrate how we can capture stimulus reports and host them in the cloud,” he said. “It will be part of our goal to help customers show that complete end-to-end picture, drilling down into the city, county, or district so we can see the economic impact or job creation.” The company will release further details on the initiative within the next few days, a spokesperson later said.

“The great thing about this entire platform,” Mr. Rice said. “Is that it isn’t just a solution to manage the Recovery Act. Customers will leverage this when they go back to their ‘day jobs,’ after the stimulus dollars are spent, to make sure that government is just as accountable to its citizens.”

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