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Project updates on Recovery.gov lack clarity

by Claritza Jiménez

A Texas company that received $14,675 in economic stimulus money submitted a mandatory progress report to the federal government using just two words: “door mats.” A California solar energy company went to the other extreme, using technical language that gave little insight of what it did with a half-million dollars in taxpayer money.

“The purpose of the reports is to allow the citizens to know where the [stimulus] money is going and what is being used for,” said Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow at George Mason University who is monitoring the process on his website, www.stimuluswatch.org. Some of the progress reports use such dense or bureaucratic language “you don’t have any idea what they’re saying,” he added.

Recipients of contracts, grants and loans funded with $275 billion of the massive economic stimulus law to create jobs are required to provide a report every three months explaining what the money is being used on and what it has achieved. The reports are posted on www.recovery.gov, which the Obama administration launched in February 2009 for taxpayers to keep tabs on how funds are spent.

But according to a 424-page review by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, most of the reports turned over to the government fail to clearly and completely describe the purpose of the award, how the money is being used, the status of work, and outcomes. The GAO found only 25 percent of stimulus recipients it sampled met this standard. Nearly 70 percent had some or most of the information, but not all. And 7 percent provided little or none of the required information.

“This is definitely something we’ve been seeing in the recipient reports — the narrative fields are not very informative,” said Sam Rosen-Amy, an analyst at OMB Watch, a watchdog group. “They can range anywhere from a few words that don’t mean anything to long, jargon-filled paragraphs that aren’t very helpful.”

Brito’s user-friendly website takes data from the government’s Recovery.gov site and lets readers rate stimulus projects from best to worst, share information on a project through a Wiki page, and debate on the quality of the projects in a comment section.

The Office of Management and Budget said it agreed with the GAO’s recommendations that it issue clearer instructions and examples for recipients to use in filling out the narrative portion of future progress reports, and to periodically review the award descriptions.

Rosen-Amy at OMB Watch agrees with the recommendations. “I think what OMB has to do is make it clear that this is the most important field in their recipient report. Without a good narrative field it doesn’t help the average person.”

ABOUT THE DATA:

What: Periodic reports from recipients of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contracts, grants and loans
Where: Recovery.gov
Availability: Online but not as user-friendly as they should be.
Format: Many reports either lack adequate details or use jargon that is difficult to understand.

Send your tips on government data sets that you think should be made more accessible or user-friendly to datamine@publicintegrity.org. We’re eager to hear what you turn up — full credit and links will be provided to individuals whose suggestions we use in our series.

The Data Mine is a joint project of the <a href="http://www.publicintegrity.org">Center for Public Integrity</a> and the <a href="http://www.sunlightfoundation.com">Sunlight Foundation</a>.