Comments Due Friday on OMB Recovery Guidance to Agencies

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So you say you want a revolution? This Friday, April 17, is the deadline to provide feedback to the Office of Management and Budget on April 3 Updated Guidance to agencies for administering and tracking of Recovery spending. I got my hands on this bad boy upgrade to the earlier Feb 18 Guidance memo and decided to do my first unboxing video. An “unboxing video” is a youtube clip of a geek opening a newly purchased tech toy. I felt the metaphor fit, so here it is. After the video, I summarize what to like, what not to like and what is confusing in the Update Guidance.

What to Like The best news is the Updated Guidance clearly says all the spending reporting required by the Recovery Act will be “collected centrally.” This means all the data should end up in one place, making aggregation and end-user search much easier. A new site called FederalReporting.gov (nothing there yet) will be created that helps with that collection.

OMB also states in the document its intent to use the authority granted in the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to (eventually) drill down multiple levels of sub-contractors. Section 2.10 speaks provides more detail as to the level of reporting planned for different types of Recovery spending.

  • For the approximate $60 billion in Federal contract dollars under the Recovery Act, detailed information will be available for the Federal contracts awarded, how the prime contractor is using the funds they have been provided, and any subcontracts awarded by the prime contractor.
  • For the more than $300 billion in grants covered by the recipient reporting requirements in the Recovery Act, detailed information on use of funds will be available for the Federal grants awarded, how the prime recipient of the grant is using the funds they have been provided, and any sub-awards made by the primary recipient. The following additional detail will help clarify how far down reporting reaches –
    • For the approximate $85 billion in competitive grant awards, information will be available from the local organization that is the primary recipient of the award, including any sub-recipients that receive funds.
    • For the approximate $75 billion in Education grants, information will be available from the State on how they are using the funding, including the local school districts receiving funds.
    • For the approximate $8 billion in Housing funds, information will be available from the local housing authority on how they are using the funding, including reporting on what entities, if any, they distribute funding to.
    • For the approximately $37 billion in highway and transit formula funding, grant recipients will be required to report on contractors they hire for various projects.

It is also good OMB is sticking with the Weekly Financial and Activity Reports from agencies instead of shifting to monthly reports. This will keep the announcements of basic activities of agencies timely. Section 2.13 provides new details on how job creation will be determined and reported. This version clearly indicates the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RAT Board) is responsible for the Recovery.gov web site while OMB will be responsible for the collecting and managing the data that feeds it.

Overall, OMB is moving to standardize data elements. Appendix 3 describes the data elements for Agency Program Plans that must be filed by May 1, by each of the 28 federal agencies handling Recovery dollars. Appendix 8 describes terms and conditions for federal contracts and Appendix 9 addresses grants, loans, and other assistance.

What Not to Like
It is disappointing that, according to Section 2.11, various recipient reporting may not be available to the public until October 10. That is a long time from now considering the amount of attention the spending is getting and the fact other recovery spending sites are popping up. The Recovery Act says recipient reporting begins 180 days after the act (effectively July) and reports are submitted “10 days after the end of each quarter.” So while the 180 day time frame is not completely unreasonable considering it takes a while to get the money out there, the quarterly reporting period adds another three month waiting period to the first reports. This is striking many transparency advocates as an anachronistic in the age of the real-time web.

Despite the 174-page girth of this document, one might still have the feeling the planned transparency—without a doubt unprecedented compared to the past—does not go far enough. One gets this feeling because details of how the required reporting will be collected is still only partially fleshed out in this release. First, OMB gives itself some wiggle room on when and how it will collect information from every tier of sub-contractor. (I personally believe the intent to collect down to sub-contractors is indeed in the document.) Second, the document does not provide the additional details on the either the recipient data feeds or some other agency data feeds many were hoping to see. This has left some advocates who have a highly technical bent wondering if these missing details might in fact signal OMB backing away from web-native data feeds. (I don’t see as much backing away as providing alternate data collection processes.)

What is Confusing
The Recovery Act is pumping three-quarters of a trillion dollars into the economy through a variety mechanism, but is doing so through various funding channels. Each channel has its own legacy rules and issues. Imagine a reality TV show called “Spending with the Government” in which you are given lots of money to spend in a limited time. To make it challenging, instead of one big check, the funds have been placed into twenty different accounts, each with their rules of how to access and spend it. Also, you have to maintain a web site where you have to detail not only your spending, but what everybody else does with the money you give them. Oh, and you are expected to respond to all queries of fraud and bad spending people tell you about via your web site.

It’s easy for journalists and the public to talk about tracking “Recovery spending”, but OMB has to figure out how to do that—and how to explain how it is doing that—across the specifics of all these different mechanisms and fields. For example, some of the money is being spent directly by federal agencies, while other money is being spent indirectly via States and local municipalities. OMB’s tools for tracking funds directly spend by federal agencies includes the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA) which created USASpending.gov, and Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). Money spent indirectly is harder. Agencies give the money to states and states can then distribute it to contractors or even local municipalities. The fact the Guidance document must speak to all of these funding mechanisms is one of the main reasons it can be very confusing to read, especially to the new crowd source public getting involved.

Providing Feedback Here’s the information on how to provide feedback:

  • OMB is requesting input from the public on this Guidance. In particular, OMB is interested in public views on Section 2 and provisions related to recipient reporting. Questions and feedback about this guidance document should be submitted by April 17th, 2009 to recovery@omb.eop.gov and should have the term “guidance feedback” in the title of the email.
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