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

How “Open and Transparent" Should Federal Infrastructure Spending Data Be?

How “Open and Transparent" Should Federal Infrastructure Spending Data Be?

By Dennis D. McDonald

How will infrastructure spending be tracked?

While the Trump Administration’s plans for "infrastructure spending" are still being developed, it is useful now to ask about how infrastructure spending will be tracked. The questions we can ask are pretty basic:

  1. Who is spending the money and what is the source? Taxpayers,? Local, state, or federal agencies? Private investors?

  2. What is the infrastructure spending being used for? Roads, bridges? Schools? Flood control? Electrical transmission?

  3. How is the infrastructure work being performed? Temporary or full-time employees? Seasonal workers? Skill versus unskilled workers? Government versus private sector workers? Sole-source versus competitive bidding? Will only U.S. citizens with appropriate paperwork be allowed to work on infrastructure projects?

  4. Where is the infrastructure spending actually taking place? Urban versus rural locations? Areas of high employment? Will foreign sourced or foreign manufactured goods be allowed?

How much openness and transparency?

An overarching policy question is how open and transparent will infrastructure spending be especially when public money and resources are involved?

Memories of ARRA

Thinking back to the ARRA (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama to stimulate the economy following the Great Recession), efforts were made then to track whether Federal efforts were actually having an impact on the economy. Dedicated systems and procedures were established (for example, data collection procedures overseen by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board). These translated into Federal and state reporting on where the money was going and what good it was doing in terms of employment.

Drivers of effectiveness

In retrospect, much of the effectiveness of the AARA and RATB tracking of stimulus spending was due to three factors:

  1. High visibility of the Federally funded recovery effort.
  2. Determination to make tracking data about program performance public.
  3. Willingness to implement a dedicated management infrastructure to oversee the effort using appropriate tools.

ARRA activities included a managed program with clear goals and staffing by qualified technical and financial personnel. Will a similar targeted effort be implemented to track the Trump Administration's infrastructure efforts?

How do you define "open"?

A lot will depend on how "open" the program is designed to be. There may arise political opposition to adding new staff to the Federal employment roles. There may also arise concerns about revealing the internal financial details of government contractors tasked with implementing infrastructure projects. Keep in mind, also, that it takes resources to collect and manage program spending data.

Such concerns will not be new to anyone familiar with government contracting and the rules and regulations that have grown up over the years to promote competition and to control graft and cronyism.

How much does "open" cost?

An important question will be how much we need to spend on making infrastructure spending data open and transparent. There are many ways to define “open.” Different definitions have different implications for tracking and measuring program performance metrics. As I have learned first-hand through my own research and consulting, data doesn't make itself “open.” Different levels of openness will have different implications for users and managers alike.

Users very widely in terms of the capability they have to interpret data; this is sometimes referred to as varying levels of “data literacy.” This can influence the types of services that are provided to maintain access to data and its interpretation.

Usage drives program costs

The intended users of infrastructure spending data will also impact reporting program costs. For example, a quarterly report to Congress will impose different demands on report generators than maintenance of a file oriented data portal on infrastructure spending intended for self-service by different user groups.

Whichever route is taken, I am hoping that any new infrastructure spending reporting will be seriously designed and funded so that we can reliably answer the types of questions I listed at the beginning. 

Program management and reporting need to be tightly coupled

At minimum, program reporting and operation should be very tightly coupled so that both tactical and strategic questions related to policy effectiveness can be answered both objectively and efficiently.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Dennis D McDonald

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