Agencies must deal with Recovery Act stress

Wednesday - 4/15/2009, 7:56pm EDT

Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
FederalNewsRadio

The demand the Recovery Act is putting on agency infrastructures may be the ultimate stress test.

"The Recovery Act will illustrate some long standing problems with federal management," says Paul Posner, a professor and the director of the Master's in Public Administration program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"The information systems needed to carry out the transparency goal and help agencies work collaboratively will come under a lot of strain."

Posner's assessment is one many in the federal, state and local governments are just acknowledging.

Dave McClure, managing vice president for Gartner Government Research, says government employees are facing a, "blizzard of information" and are in an "information coma" because of Recovery Act requirements.

"I met with the Energy Department's national laboratory's chief information officers and they are under a ton of pressure because of all the money for renewable energy," says McClure April 15 at a panel discussion on transparency and the Recovery Act in Washington sponsored by CGI and George Mason University.

"Many, especially at the state level, are struggling with how to come to grips with all the requirements."

And McClure says the Office of Management and Budget's April 3 guidance doesn't slow things down. He says the 175-page document offers insight into future guidance from the administration.

"There is a lot of emphasis on reporting and results," he says.

"Agencies are struggling with performance management. If we are not careful, the work around the Recovery Act will become a reporting and compliance exercise instead of focusing on results."

McClure says there are several best practices agencies should consider:

  • Set up a program management office to coordinate all activities with a central view. This should help with accountability, transparency, standards and reporting.
  • Develop information standards and a data architecture to ensure all information is reported the same way.
  • Take advantage of easy to use applications that can pull data together, including mash-ups and open source software.

The Environmental Protection Agency already is taking several of these steps.

Lisa Schlosser, director of EPA's Office of Information Collection, says the agency has a stimulus committee made up of senior executives.

There also is a subcommittee focused on data and reporting.

This group includes CIOs, grants and contracting employees and program expert, as well as state and local partners and non-government organizations.

"We are doing an inventory of our systems and looking at the data elements of those systems," Schlosser says.

"We will document the gaps as compared to OMB's guidance and then fill them in."

OMB chief architect Kshemendra Paul also is leading an effort to develop governmentwide data standards around the Recovery Act.

Paul says standards are key to having high quality and high integrity data that the public can analyze easily.

"We need agreement on what an award means," he says.

Paul says setting the data standards will help mitigate two other challenges brought by the Recovery Act.

A data model will reduce the variability of how Recovery Act information is reported on the 150 programs across 25 agencies.

The standards also will help create a work flow model.

A work flow standard will decrease the complexity of how states submit data to Recovery.gov.

The Government Accountability Office is overseeing the use of Recovery Act funding by state governments.

Stan Czerwinski, GAO's director of strategic issues, says the audit agency's first report is due out April 23 about how 16 states and Washington, D.C. are spending stimulus funding.

GAO will issue a similar report every two months, he adds.

He says about $275 billion of the possible $500 billion will go directly to state and local governments.

"It will be hard to track $275 billion because there are so many programs in the pipeline and once the money gets past the first level of award, it's even harder," he says.

GAO will try to answer four questions about the 16 states and D.C. every two months:

  • How helpful is the federal government's guidance to state and local governments?
  • What are states using the Recovery Act funding for and how much?
  • What safeguards are state and local governments putting place to ensure they are spending money appropriately?
  • What is the money helping these governments achieve?

"This will be real time auditing," Czerwinski says.

"We will point out problems and agencies will fix them as we go. This is not the typical way we do oversight, but that way isn't good enough for the Recovery Act."

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On the Web:

FederalNewsRadio -- VA and the People Factor

FederalNewsRadio -- GAO use fraud-reporting program on stimulus funds

OMB -- Recover Act guidance

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