Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

How Open and Transparent Will Reporting of State Level Stimulus Spending Be?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

I’m almost finished building my list of state government stimulus reporting web pages. Next week I’ll begin a more detailed state by state review of what these pages reveal about how “open and transparent” states are being about how they use ARRA money.

Below I discuss why I’m doing this, what I’ve learned so far, and what I’ll be looking for when I examine individual states.

Why I’m Doing This

The simple answer is that I’m a U.S. taxpayer. I want the stimulus program to succeed. I also believe that how it is managed will not only help the economy but can also be instrumental in reshaping the relationship between citizens and their government.

The more complex answer is that I am interested in how complex information can be made clear and understandable to normal, reasonable people, people who may not normally analyze data or search databases or indexes on a regular basis. Data on stimulus spending and its effects should not, it seems to me, require an accounting degree to understand. Nor should the details about how allocation and award decisions are made be shrouded in mystery.

Since state governments are critical to how stimulus money gets spent, how they report on this is critical to citizen understanding, confidence, and support.

What I’ve Learned So Far

  • Not all states have pages set up yet to report on stimulus spending.
  • Some states are still trying to decide whether or not to accept stimulus money.
  • In some states the relationship between the executive and legislative branch in deciding how stimulus money should be spent is still being formulated.
  • Some states have already started accepting proposals for stimulus spending.
  • I have not yet seen a standard definition for the term “shovel ready.”
  • Embedded photos seem split between traditional “executive PR” photos and pictures of people wearing hard hats.
  • Stimulus oversight at the state level varies departmentally from state to state.
  • Some states appear to be “re-branding” Federal stimulus money as part of an existing or ongoing stimulus program; others identify closely with language and nomenclature used by the Federal government.
  • Many states are posting .pdf documents describing various public disclosures.
  • A few states are displaying details of money that is authorized by category.
  • A number of advocacy programs have emerged to provide public scrutiny about how stimulus money is spent (I’ve included some of these in the list).
  • So far few states are displaying spreadsheets or databases that can be manipulated by the user.
  • Few states provide a name and phone number to call with questions.
  • Some states have RSS feeds to publicize updates to the stimuls reporting page; more have email subscription features.
  • Some states are using graphics to illustrate relative spending by category. One provides a county by county breakdown of current unemployment statistics (very sobering).

What I’ll Be Looking For

I’m interested in features related to transparency and usability.

By “transparency” I mean that processes by which money is allocated, awarded, and spent are reported in enough detail to know, as close to real time as possible, whether or not goals for hiring and economic stimulation are being met. It will be interesting to see how this occurs, for example, in states where there appears to be a tug of war brewing between the Executive and the Legislature over how and whether to accept and spend stimulus money.

By “usability” I mean that the spending of money and the reporting of its impacts are done in such a way so that special tools or expertise are not required in order to make the data usable or understandable. For example, it should be possible to quickly locate how much money has been spent on types of projects by a specific date in a specific geographic area.

Chart 1. Test of Imported Data from Tracking DB

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is an Alexandria Virginia based management consultant. He can be reached by telephone at 703-549-1030 or by email at His Twitter ID is @ddmcd.

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