GAO Calls for More Descriptive Recovery Recipient Reports
by Sam Rosen-Amy, 7/15/2010
On this blog, we talk a lot about how great the Recovery Act recipient reports are (these are the reports recipients turn in every quarter explaining what they've done with their Recovery Act funds). Over the past year, we've thrown around words like "groundbreaking" and "historic" to describe how we feel about them. But they aren't perfect. Among other problems, reading the reports can oftentimes leave readers confused about what the project in question actual does, as the main descriptive fields can be anywhere from a few words to lines and lines of text filled with industry jargon.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) picked up on this in a recent letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) ("letter" is a GAO term for what anyone else would call a report). The GAO letter looks at how Recovery Act information is gathered and displayed. The authors examined the reports, evaluating them to see if they actually helped Recovery Act transparency by conveying pertinent information. The GAO looked for seven things the reports should convey about Recovery Act projects: general purpose, nature of the activity, location, cost, status, desired outcome, and scope. Most of these parameters are actually set out in the Recovery Act itself, or mandated by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance.
In examining some 500 (randomly selected) recipient reports, the GAO found that only about a quarter of the reports "had sufficiently clear and understandable information." About 70 percent of the reports they looked at had at least some information, and seven percent had very little. Specifically, the letter highlighted the narrative fields of the recipient reports, saying that these varied widely in quality, and when reports failed to convey enough information, these descriptive fields were often to blame.
The narrative fields are incredibly important to the overall quality of the reports. Of the seven things the GAO looked for in the reports, four of them, general purpose, nature of the activity, desired outcome, and scope, can only be conveyed through the three main narrative fields, "award description," "project description," and "job creation description." You can't convey these pieces of information through numbers; you need words. It seems like common sense, that descriptive fields need to be descriptive, but reports like the GAO's are useful, since their in-depth studies can confirm or deny what others only speculate about. In this case, the GAO strongly shows that the narrative fields need improvement.
[Side note: if you want to look at some recipient reports to help get a sense of what I'm talking about, and just how bad the descriptive fields can be, check out our Recovery Act tab http://www.fedspending.org/rcv/index.php?reptype=a on fedspending.org. Here is one bad and one good report that the GAO identified in its letter, as a frame of reference.]
Interestingly, some of the news accounts of this report insinuate that these problems are Recovery.gov's fault, which is a bit strange. Recovery.gov, and the Recovery Board, which runs the site, is stuck in this weird situation where they are responsible for the information shown on the website, but have no control over the information they receive through the recipient reports. It is up to OMB, through the guidances it issues, to stipulate what recipients report, and the responsibility of the recipients themselves to report good information. The Recovery Board simply publishes whatever OMB-mandated information the recipients report in, so to blame Recovery.gov for the reports' shortcomings is to basically shoot the messenger.
The real "culprit," if there is one, is OMB and the federal agencies. OMB clearly needs to issue new guidance highlighting the importance of the narrative fields, and the agencies need to push the recipients to provide better entries; the GAO letter recommends both actions in its conclusion, and OMB agreed with the recommendations. Hopefully that means we'll see some new guidance from OMB, highlighting the importance of the narrative field, sometime in the next few months.
Image by Flickr user Lower Columbia College used under a Creative Commons license.