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Stimulus Reports Could Cause Risk, Confusion

By Ed O'Keefe

CORRECTION: An Aug. 21 Fed Page article incorrectly stated the process for registering and reporting federal stimulus spending and jobs data to FederalReporting.gov. On Monday, Aug. 17, the site began accepting registration from recipients of the funds. The site will accept the spending and jobs data beginning Oct. 1. The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board will not edit the reports. Only recipients can make corrections to the data. The Eye apologizes for the error.

ORIGINAL STORY:

As Obama administration officials traveled the country this week announcing the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in new economic stimulus grants, a new government Web site began accepting the critical spending and jobs data from grant recipients that will provide the first fact-based progress report about the economic recovery efforts.

Recovery.gov
The logo for the Obama administration's economic stimulus efforts.

By mid-October the government plans to post information from stimulus money recipients online, allowing the public the chance to review the data and draw their own conclusions. President Obama promised unprecedented transparency as he built support for the stimulus package this year, promising that anyone would be able to track each dollar.

Government observers, many who applaud the act of transparency, also note that the move may provoke as many questions as answers.

“This is a game changer,” said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

“We don’t know what it’s going to mean, how it’s going to work. It’s part of the administration’s central strategy of accountability.”

Stimulus recipients have until Oct. 1 to register with FederalReporting.gov, which launched Monday. Once registered, they have until mid-October to submit their first progress report, which must include detailed information about how and where the money is spent, and the number of jobs created by the funding. Recipients could face legal action if they purposely report incorrect data.

“If we get a sense that someone is intentionally misreporting how money was actually spent, or trying to deceive the federal government, that will not be tolerated,” said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.

The reports will then appear on Recovery.gov, the online home of the economic stimulus program operated by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. The panel will correct any technical errors in the data, but will otherwise leave the information untouched.

“We’re not going to be in the business of rewriting summaries,” said RAT Board spokesman Ed Pound. “It’s going to be fairly unusual for the government.”

And can leave it vulnerable to criticism and mischaracterization. In July the Drudge Report Web site highlighted a few pages of data from Recovery.gov. The Drudge site ridiculed the Agriculture Department for spending millions of stimulus dollars on ham and cheese. Within hours, Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement explaining that the purchases were meant for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supplies food banks. Vilsack’s response averted further potentially negative media attention.

“It’s just these little things that could potentially be the pitfall and that’s the stuff that agencies should be paying attention to,” said Craig Jennings, a fiscal policy analyst with OMB Watch, a good government group that supports transparency.

“Unless the federal agencies are kind of standing on top of the recipients and the data to make sure there’s nothing funny about it, the chances of those kinds of stories are going to be a lot greater.”

“The bright side of this is that you put the information out there and citizens find ways of weaving information together that the government on its own never would have thought of,” Kettl said. “The less happy side is the prospect that people will go through and literally dredge up individual anecdotes to sway opinion.”

By Ed O'Keefe  | August 20, 2009; 5:21 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Agencies and Departments, Tracking the Stimulus  
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