Timeline ticks on for Recovery Act transparency

Despite the weeklong reprieve for stimulus funds reporting, administration officials are already working to stay ahead of possible inconsistencies and maintain their timeline.

Another major milestone for the Obama administration’s transparency initiatives plays out this month in the form of recipient reporting. For those who received grants, loans or contracts from the Recovery Act, October 10th was supposed to be the last day to report how and where those funds were used.

But the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RAT Board) extended the initial reporting deadline to Oct. 20 to provide a grace period for recipients who have not yet reported, provided recipients explain their reasons for delayed reporting. One reason recipients may have is that some states encountered technical glitches when filing bulk reports, the website said.

As first reported by CivSource last week, some state and local governments were experiencing trouble with XML reporting schemas, while others were having problems with hidden fields or inconsistent formats.

In an interview with Nextgov Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board spokesman Ed Pound said the extension was in everyone’s interest and would not jeopardize future benchmarks, scheduled later this month for Recovery.gov. “We felt we had the leeway to do this given the problems we were encountering [with] technical issues — and this was the first time for people who were filing these reports,” Mr. Pound said Tuesday.

So the process moves on.

Tomorrow, Recovery.gov will post reports for all federal contracts awarded so far, with reports for all grants and loans to come at the end of the month. The contracts coming out tomorrow will be those deals handed down directly from the federal government. But these funds will only represent a small portion of the money that has been used from the stimulus funds. The contracts posted at the end of the month will include the contracts awarded by state and local governments – which many believe to be the real test for transparency mechanisms in the Recovery Act. Determining how many reports to expect from recipients is a daunting task because everyone from the sub-recipient through the federal agency has to be on the same page, according to government officials and observers.

OMB originally indicated through informal discussions with the National Association of Counties that recipient reports could number between 150,000 and 200,000, NACo Special Projects Coordinator for the Recovery Act Mike Belarmino, said in an interview earlier this week.

“They wanted to include the entire universe,” he said. But those numbers were later amended, in part, because OMB hadn’t originally accounted for the lag between obligations and official, individual award announcements. Other factors include an unknown number of sub-recipients who received awards, says Craig Jennings from OMB Watch.

“[T]he theoretical answer is that the number of prime recipients could be known if all agencies reported on what awards were signed. But, we won’t know how many sub-recipients received awards until the prime recipients submit their reports,” Jennings said in an e-mail. “If OMB required agencies to report on all the awards they signed, then the RAT Board should have a good idea of what to expect. The problem is, as far as I know, no such reporting requirement has been put on agencies.”

According to Cheryl Arvidson, Assistant Director of Communications for the RAT Board, “It is (emphasis added) up to the agencies that distribute the funds to verify that recipients have reported.”

But as Mr. Jennings from OMB Watch indicated, unless agencies have a watertight accounting system, relying on them could lead to wholly inaccurate reports.

Despite the uncertainties, government officials at all levels press forward with the process, and for the most part OMB and RAT Board overseers are satisfied with early returns on their transparency efforts.

“The recovery board built FederalReporting.gov to receive the recipient reports and Recovery.gov to post them for public viewing in a remarkable time frame of only a few months,” RAT Board chairman Earl Devaney said in a statement. “I’m very pleased to say that the collection of this data went very smoothly.”

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