Recovery News

ProPublica’s Unofficial Guide to Recovery.gov

by Michael Grabell and Jennifer LaFleur and Amanda Michel and Christopher Flavelle, ProPublica - October 30, 2009 5:02 pm EST
When the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package passed in February, President Obama pledged that American taxpayers would be able to track every dime. Today, the government released its first comprehensive look—a trove of data on 121,000 stimulus reports worth about $159 billion. Democrats and Republicans are already using the new data to support claims that the stimulus triumphed or flopped. But how much can you reliably conclude from the data? Here is ProPublica’s guide to what’s new, what’s missing and what to watch for: Jobs Of all the stimulus data released today, the most-watched figure is likely to be 640,329 – the number of jobs reported to be created or saved. Counting jobs might sound easy, but it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. And there are a number of important caveats to keep in mind. Read more ...

The Reports Are Coming! The Reports Are Coming!

by Sabrina Shankman, ProPublica - October 30, 2009 12:37 pm EST
Today’s roundup of stimulus coverage: New stimulus job numbers are due today, and early reports state that 650,000 jobs have been created or saved by the nearly $800 billion package. The White House says this puts them on track to achieving the goal of 3.5 million stimulus jobs by the end of 2010. The report coming out today is based on the first $150 billion in spending, and will provide a broad, concrete look at the stimulus’ impact on the economy. And creating it was no easy feat. A whopping 131,000 reports will be uploaded to the government’s stimulus Web site, Recovery.gov. Need a bit of help wading through it? We’ll be posting a guide to what’s new, what’s missing and what to watch for. Read more…

New Questions About Stim Job Numbers; White House Fires Back

by Christopher Flavelle, ProPublica - October 29, 2009 11:50 am EST
Today’s roundup of stimulus coverage: We start today with an Associated Press story that seems to have rattled the White House. The AP reports that the government “has overstated by thousands the number of jobs it has created or saved with federal contracts” from the stimulus. At question is the government’s assertion two weeks ago that federal stimulus contracts had created more than 30,000 jobs. The AP reports that the number is overstated by at least 5,000 jobs. According to the story, one company in Colorado said it had created 4,231 jobs thanks to the stimulus, when the real number was fewer than 1,000. Read more…

Education Secretary Not Mad, Just Disappointed

by Sabrina Shankman, ProPublica - October 28, 2009 10:36 am EST
Today’s roundup of stimulus coverage: Oh, for shame. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania aren’t following the rules when it comes to spending stimulus dollars on education. And the Department of Education’s inspector general isn’t happy about it. In a recent memo, reports CNN, the three states were called out for using K-12 stimulus funds to fill gaps in their education budgets, among other offenses. These stimulus funds are intended to go to advancing education reforms, increasing teacher effectiveness, implementing statewide data systems and providing support to struggling schools. In a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote that if the state didn’t straighten out its spending of education stimulus money, it could jeopardize its ability to win competitive grants down the road. Read more…

Poor Data Quality and Lack of Website Functionality Hobble Recovery Act Recipient Reports

The release of the first round of Recovery Act contracts spending data marks the first time that recipients of federal funding have been required to report to the federal government on their use of the funds in a timely and transparent manner. This represents an important milestone in government transparency and accountability. However, the poor data quality and Recovery.gov's limited functionality hinder the promise of a new era of fiscal transparency – at least for this round of recipient reporting.

Since the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (Recovery Board) released the first round of Recovery Act recipient reporting on Oct. 15, everyone from federal officials, members of Congress, transparency advocates, and ordinary citizens have gone to the site to see the new data. These recipient report data provide a new level of detail on federal projects. Provisions in the Recovery Act require that recipients of Recovery Act funds report back to the federal government on the amount of funds received and expended on Recovery Act projects, including project status updates. The Recovery Act also requires that recipients indicate the number of jobs created or saved by the project, along with a narrative explaining why and what kind of jobs were created. Additional information is also being collected.
This level of information has never been reported before. However, this new dataset will deliver full transparency only when two dimensions of data publication are adequately implemented. First, the public should be able to access recipient reports on Recovery.gov in myriad ways that allow for an array of searches and analyses. Second, the data that are made available should accurately reflect how recipients used Recovery Act funds.
Recovery Act transparency requires that sufficient tools be available to access spending data. In this respect, the website built to disclose the recipient reports to the public, Recovery.gov, falls significantly short. Users have very limited options to search, sort, or sift through the recipient reports, limiting the connections that can be drawn between various data points or the ability to find out if a particular company has received Recovery Act funds. While the site does allow rudimentary searches by ZIP code, allowing users to find out how many Recovery Act contracts XYZ Corporation received in any given neighborhood, users cannot find out the total number of contracts and total dollar amount XYZ Corporation received in the state or throughout the nation. In other words, the user cannot search by recipient. This information is vital to developing a balanced understanding of how Recovery Act funds are being deployed. Without this type of searching and sorting that enables users to slice and dice Recovery Act spending data, Recovery.gov severely limits the usefulness of the data set produced by the transparency provisions in the Recovery Act.
In addition to online analytical resources provided by the federal government, Recovery Act data must be made available in machine-readable formats to allow outside stakeholders to create their own tools. When the Recovery Board first released the data, it also made recipient reports available in one machine-readable format, but the implementation of this feature was cumbersome. Initially, the data were only available in 180 separate files (organized by state), but after some loud complaints, the Recovery Board corrected this issue by re-releasing the recipient reports as one, nationwide file. When the Recovery Board received additional feedback that the file contained formatting errors, it released a corrected version in a very short timeframe. Although these issues have been fixed, it is still necessary to make additional data formats available on Recovery.gov, such as an ATOM feed, which makes it easier for machines to process and display the data without human intervention.
Beyond issues with information access, Recovery Act transparency is also hobbled along a second dimension: data quality. Specifically, the jobs information, a much-touted feature of the recipient data, is rife with errors. One recurring problem is that job creation narratives do not match up with job creation numbers. For example, the narrative description of the jobs created and saved might indicate that no jobs were created or saved, but the number field that contains a count of jobs shows that 10 jobs were created or saved. Another common problem is that similar projects have different job creation numbers (for instance, both Chrysler and General Motors were given projects to build cars for the government for similar amounts of money, but according to their respective recipient reports, Chrysler created no jobs at all, but General Motors created or saved more than 105 jobs).
Furthermore, it is not always clear where jobs were created. A particular outlier in this regard is a report in which a recipient noted it created 4,685 jobs in Colorado, the most of any state in the nation. Yet a close reading of the report reveals that 3,852 of those jobs were actually created in other states.
From the large number of errors, it is clear many recipients have differing interpretations of the jobs reporting requirements. The upshot of these data quality problems is that the total number of jobs created or saved by Recovery Act contract recipients is simply an unreliable gauge of the impact the act is having on the economy.
Transparency in the Recovery Act will continue to be constrained unless Recovery.gov is substantially improved and unless recipient report data quality improves significantly. There have been improvements already to the website, and it is likely that subsequent rounds of recipient reports will contain improved data quality. The Recovery Board, which built and maintains Recovery.gov, has been responsive to outside feedback and criticism, giving good reason to be optimistic this groundbreaking transparency model will continue to improve.

Extension of Home-Buyer Credit, Proposed by Dems, Gets Slammed in Times and Post

by Christopher Flavelle, ProPublica - October 27, 2009 11:55 am EDT
Today’s roundup of stimulus coverage: We start today with a call-out. The Obama administration announced its list of projects that will get funding under the $3.4 billion stimulus fund for smart-grid investments. The New York Times’ Kate Galbraith reports that 100 projects got awards, ranging in size from $400,000 to $200 million. Where’s the money going? You can search the list by category (PDF) or by state (PDF). And if you see any projects that merit investigation, shoot us an e-mail. Pieces in two newspapers weigh in with some stimulus policy prescriptions. The lead editorial in the Times calls for more stimulus, arguing that the economy’s persistent weakness, rather than proof that the stimulus has failed, underlines the need for more of it. But the Times adds that additional stimulus money needs to be better targeted, calling measures like the first-time home-buyers credit a “waste.” Read more…

Coburn Questions Stimulus Contracts to Suspended Contractors

by Michael Grabell, ProPublica - October 27, 2009 8:01 am EDT
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has sent a letter (PDF) to Defense Secretary Robert Gates asking why contractors under criminal investigation were able to obtain millions of dollars in work from the federal stimulus program. In a story co-published Monday morning in USA Today, we reported that six companies suspected of defrauding a small-business program have been awarded 112 stimulus projects, worth nearly $30 million, at Air Force and Army bases across the country. The government investigation began more than a year ago, but the companies weren’t suspended from receiving new government contracts until Sept. 23, after they’d already begun working on the stimulus projects. Read more…

Energy Department Boldly Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before

by Sabrina Shankman, ProPublica - October 26, 2009 1:10 pm EDT
Today’s roundup of stimulus coverage: Bacteria that make gasoline? Enzymes that counter global warming? Batteries running on solar power all night? The Energy Department is on it, reports The New York Times. The department is creating a new agency that will embrace these kinds of bold proposals, most of which will likely fail but a few of which could have a “transformative impact,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Times. The agency—which was created by the Bush administration, but received its first funding through the stimulus—will hand out $151 million in grants to small businesses, educational institutions and a few corporations to develop these kinds of ideas. You can check out some of the projects here. Cheer up, America. Last week, White House chief economist Christina Romer said the largest impacts of the stimulus on the economy were behind us. Today, she clarified that seemingly discouraging statement. She explains that while the largest period of economic growth has already occurred, the largest effect of the stimulus on GDP and employment “occur well after the largest effects on growth rates.” Read more…

About One Quarter of Stimulus Money Paid Out

by Christopher Flavelle, ProPublica - October 26, 2009 1:06 pm EDT
We’ve updated our interactive Stimulus Progress Bar, which tracks the flow of Recovery Act funds through federal agencies. These latest numbers show the federal government has spent $120 billion, or a little more than 20 percent of the $580 billion in actual spending included in the act. When you add the $63 billion in tax cuts already issued, the government has spent $183 billion since the Recovery Act was passed in February—just shy of a quarter of the total funds appropriated by Congress.
But beware: It’s possible that the amount paid out is greater than a quarter. We got the $63 billion in tax cuts figure from Recovery.gov, but the site only covers the period up until the end of August. It’s likely more tax cuts have been issued since August. We’ll update our numbers as soon as Recovery.gov updates theirs.
As we’ve noted before, different agencies commit and spend their stimulus money at very different speeds. With our Stimulus Progress Bar, you can see how much stimulus money each agency was awarded; how much they’ve committed to specific projects, and how much money has actually gone out the door. (Here’s more about what those different steps actually mean.)

Stimulus Contracts Go to Companies Under Criminal Investigation

by Michael Grabell, ProPublica - October 25, 2009 10:30 pm EDT
The Department of Defense awarded nearly $30 million in stimulus contracts to six companies while they were under federal criminal investigation on suspicion of defrauding the government. According to Air Force documents, the companies claimed to be small, minority-owned businesses, which allowed them to gain special preference in bidding for government contracts. But investigators found that they were all part of a larger minority-owned firm in Southern California, making them ineligible for the contracts. Read more…

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