Managing the Recovery Act’s transparency expectations

The metaphor that watching a bill be made in Congress is like watching a butcher make sausage may have a rival in stimulus funds reporting. According to one industry expert, high expectations and early setbacks in the Recovery Act reporting process have caused state and local recipients to worry about the looming October 10 reporting deadline. Keeping up with rapidly changing reporting criteria will likely keep stimulus watchers going long after the initial deadline has passed.

Stimulus project data from federal agencies has been flowing to for the last few months, but the floodgates for stimulus recipients just opened last Saturday, October 1. And early indications have some recipients worried about making sure the tens of thousands of data points line up properly.

“Everybody is terrified, they’re scared,” said Stuart McKee, National Technology Officer for Microsoft’s U.S. Public Sector, in an interview with CivSource. “There’s going to be a lot of dust,” after the reporting deadline ends October 10, he said. Mr. McKee is a former state chief information officer from Washington, and he helped oversee the development of Stimulus360, a SharePoint-based solution designed to help public sector agencies track, measure and share information about stimulus-funded projects.

Mr. McKee said the tension is always high when working with the federal government, and that the marketplace is reflective of the angst at the state and local level. He believes that the high expectations at the federal level are especially problematic for recipients reporting on the money they’ve spent through the Recovery Act.

“Expectations are way overset, and they have not been reset. Ten-thousand reports from 10,000 locations just won’t reconcile right away. It’s just the nature of gathering and collecting data. When you’re trying to organize this magnitude of data, it’s going to be very hard.”

Each state has ten days to finish reporting their use of stimulus dollars starting from the end of each quarter. They will report that data either by “centralized” or “decentralized” means. Centralized reporting requires one person or agency head collects all the data for the entire state and submits to the federal government. Decentralized reporting makes each state agency responsible for reporting their own data to the federal government.  According to the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers, the states are split evenly, with twenty-four states submitting data through decentralized reporting – something Mr. McKee believes has a higher risk of yielding disappointing results.

To make matters worse, technical flaws found in federal XML reporting schemas have caused early validation errors. Several late changes have also been made to the XML schemas, Mr. McKee said, which makes it difficult for recipients to report and for Microsoft to implement the automation components of Stimulus360.

“The spreadsheets have been a nightmare,” McKee said, explaining how three different versions of spreadsheet templates led to the first wave of confusion. He also said that some clients were having problems with hidden fields or inconsistent formats, designating simple yes/no responses, which made automation a much more difficult process.

Even with these and other problems, McKee said he’s seeing amazing work being done in unlikely geographies to take these struggles and build a more resilient solution for life after the stimulus.

“Despite the stress, many states understand that Stimulus360 has a shelf life that [will outlast] the stimulus. Every single customer, as they go through this process, knows their agenda is much longer-term, and the ability to aggregate information from multiple sources on multiple contracts is part of a broader agenda – a transparency agenda – which they know has implications beyond the stimulus.”

Recipients feel more confident than they did a few weeks ago, McKee said, because they understand they’re not the only ones facing tough challenges. “Our customers have a defensible position: they will be able to articulate what they’ve been doing and what their plans are. And with the Microsoft ecosystem, the community can work and interact with each other so they’re not alone.”

Mr. McKee is counseling customers to be aggressive in their own reporting and focus on the value they can bring to local citizens. “They should be submitting their own reports on their own sites, publishing reports directly to their constituents,” he said. But, he ceded, “understanding risk management in this kind of climate is difficult because money is moving so quickly.” Although it won’t be popular, Mr. McKee is urging customers to talk publicly about the difficult nature of achieving such high levels of transparency.

“We’ve got to set expectations correctly – there is no magic bullet.”

For related articles, read:
As reporting deadline looms, stimulus recipients brace for uncertainty, CivSource 09-30-09
Recovery Act accountants to take center stage in October, CivSource 09-22-09