Six months of stimulus: Follow the money, if you can

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act celebrated its six-month anniversary this week. ProPublica looks back at six months of stimulus coverage and finds a mixed record on one key aspect of the package: how well the government has met its own pledge of transparency.

The Recovery Act isn’t only one of the largest bills of its kind in American history; it was also billed as an attempt to set a new standard for transparency in government spending.

The president’s signature on the act had barely dried when the government launched Recovery.gov, meant to be the definitive government hub for tracking stimulus dollars. A week later, Earl Devaney, a celebrated inspector general at the Department of the Interior, was tapped to head the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the independent agency created by Congress to oversee Recovery.gov and coordinate efforts to crack down on stimulus fraud.

Some things are easier said than done. ProPublica began raising questions early on about exactly how well the government would be able to live up to its promise of transparency. Among the concerns was the fact that states were only due to report their stimulus spending every three months, as well as the fact that the reporting chain wouldn’t necessarily follow the money all the way to the contractor or sub-contractor level. By the beginning of March, a number of states had launched stimulus Web sites of their own—some of which were better than others.

To give the government a hand tracking those dollars, ProPublica launched a few tracking tools of its own. In March, we introduced an interactive graphic comparing how much residents of each state stood to gain from the tax measures in the stimulus. In May, we went a step further, launching Adopt a Stimulus Project, a citizen-reporting initiative from Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s editor of distributed reporting. In July, we launched StimCities, tracking the change in the economy in eight cities. Earlier this month, we launched our Stimulus Progress Bar, complete with language that actual humans speak. And we introduced our Recovery Tracker, which lets you search for stimulus projects in your area.

In the meantime, problems appeared with Recovery.gov. By April 1, the site still had no details on how stimulus money was being spent or who was getting it—shortcomings that were compounded by formatting irregularities, technical jargon and time lags in posting information. Then, on April 8, a key date was moved back: The Office of Management and Budget, which calls the shots on stimulus rules, pushed back the deadline for stimulus recipients to report how they spend the money, from July to October. The OMB said states and other recipients needed more time to report their information to Recovery.gov. Federal agencies, too, needed time to work the kinks out: In May, the Labor Department corrected an overstatement of $10.4 billion in its stimulus spending.

It turned out that Recovery.gov needed more time itself. Although the site added new features through the spring, glitches remained, including discrepancies between the numbers on Recovery.gov and on federal agencies’ own Web sites. The Recovery Board turned for help to a company called Smartronix, which got a contract to build a “Recovery.gov 2.0” for as much as $18 million. The one catch? When ProPublica filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to see a copy of the contract, what we got was a bundle of redactions. Questions remain about who ensures data quality, a key problem with earlier attempts at transparency. Like so much of the stimulus, it seems, the push for transparency is a work in progress.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of a ProPublica look at the stimulus after six months. Read the rest of the article for an equally detailed assessment of other key aspects of the package: how wisely the money has been spent; and how many jobs have been created (and whether we’ll ever know for certain).

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