So, we paid a government contractor $1.1 million for 2 pounds of sliced ham? That seemed to be the story as the Drudge Report started linking items from the federal government’s Recovery.gov site this morning.
Not so fast, said the Agriculture Department, as it swatted down Drudge’s reports with a rare rebuttal.
Now, all this back-and-forth might seem a bit excessive for a few pounds of sliced ham, but it illustrates one of the perils of transparency without context. Our government spends billions each year to collect, maintain and analyze all kinds of data. But it’s collected by humans, who make mistakes.
Take the ham fiasco. Everything appears above board in the original description on Recovery.gov. But because of the “Description of Work/Service Performed” field, it looks like we paid a bunch of money for some pork. That’s not necessarily an error, but it’s definitely not clear to most readers. (I probably would have drawn the same conclusion, although I would check it out first before writing a story.)
The people who deal with government data on a regular basis know all too well the problems associated with collecting and disseminating data. In the field of computer-assisted reporting, we call it “dirty data,” and we’re on guard for it all the time. (A chunk of my time as Database Editor is spent cleaning up data we get from various local, state and federal sources.)
Here’s how the folks at the Institute for Analytic Journalism put it in 2006:
An uncountable number of public agency databases have been created in the past 30 years. More and more, public and private decision-makers draw on this collected, digital data to make decisions about everything from disciplining doctors to zoning decisions to law enforcement to deciding who gets to vote. The often-unquestioned assumption is that the data, as found, analyzed and presented by a government or quasi-government agency, is valid. Increasingly, anecdotal evidence indicates that data is riddled with serious errors. Often, if initial investigations indicate the data is too suspect — and the cost to clean the data by hand or automatically too high — then good and important analysis and investigations are put aside.
The Government Accountability Office recently put out its own report on the subject of government data. The report is mainly a guide for government auditors, but they recognized the problems of all these disparate sources of data, and the public’s appetite to put it all online.
While this guide focuses only on the reliability of data in terms of completeness and accuracy, other data quality considerations are just as important. In particular, consider validity. Validity (as used here) refers to whether the data actually represent what you think is being measured. For example, if we are interested in analyzing job performance and a field in the database is labeled “annual evaluation score,” we need to know whether that field seems like a reasonable way to gain information on a person’s job performance or whether it represents another kind of evaluation score.
In journalism, we try to follow the age-old advice of, “If your Mother says she loves you, check it out.” Maybe Drudge should do the same thing?
Tracking federal stimulus spending can get to be a full-time job in itself, so I always like it when officials make government data easy and accessible to use.
Take the latest maps from the federal recovery.gov site:
Looks pretty nice, right? It is, until you start drilling down into some of the data. Unfortunately, bureaucrat-ese is still alive and well. Here’s the description that popped up when I selected a stimulus project underway in Kingfisher:
Recipient Name :URS GROUP, INC.
Project Description :COTTONWOOD 15 DECOMMISSIONING DESIGN – THIS TASK ORDER IS ISSUED UNDER AN EXISTING IDIQ (COMPETITIVE). THE ORIGINAL IDIQ DID NOT OBLIGATED FUNDS AND WAS NOT ENTERED INTO FPDS BY THE ORIGINAL CONTRACTING OFFICER.
Available Funds :$138,905
Project Location : KINGFISHER, OK
I have to admit, I have no idea what any of that means, other than who got the contract and for how much.
It took two more clicks to finally get a clue about what that project entailed. Apparently, the money is going to a Denver-based firm for some type of soil conservation engineering project in Kingfisher.
This is all fairly normal, at least according to the stimulus site explanation:
The orange dots indicate the location of a project funded under the Recovery Act. Click on a dot and see the company that received Recovery money, the project, the amount of money allocated for the project, and its location. In most cases, the company and the project are in the same state, but they may not be in the same city. There are instances when a company based in one state has a project in another state. For example, a company with headquarters in the South may have a project in the Midwest or Northeast. As data is submitted, we’ll update the map.
Meanwhile, over at Oklahoma’s official recovery site, here’s the latest table of disbursements, from early June. (Click to see larger version):
In fact, much of the Oklahoma-specific data remains trapped in PDF files here, with very little in the way of organization. And according to the site, the last meeting the coordinating council had about the stimulus was back in March. Maybe our auditor, the governor and others should take a look at what’s going on at other state stimulus sites, like Maryland.
Oklahoma is the latest state to have a dedicated Web site for federal stimulus oversight and transparency. The site went live on Friday with very little fanfare from state officials.
In all, the Oklahoma is expected to get about $2.6 billion from the massive $787 billion federal stimulus bill signed into law last month. Here’s a quick breakdown of the money from the state’s Web site:
With the launch, Oklahoma joins more than 20 other states with official stimulus/recovery Web sites.
From the site’s introduction:
In February of 2009, President Obama and the U.S. Congress approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help kick-start the nation’s economy. The landmark measure includes targeted tax relief and significant investments in such vital areas as education, transportation, healthcare, science and technology and energy-efficiency.
In an effort to ensure full transparency and accountability, Gov. Brad Henry ordered the creation of a state Web site to help track the use of Oklahoma stimulus funds. This site will provide the citizens of Oklahoma access to clear and concise information about the federal stimulus initiative.
The Web site fulfills the transparency side of the equation. Henry last week appointed state Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage to oversee stimulus spending in the state.
As part of that oversight, Burrage will make sure agencies are following the stimulus’ rules for responsible spending. From the FAQs:
* Strict time limits for obligating funds;
* Public access to contract and grant information;
* Requirements for competitive contracting;
* Certifications by the Governor or local officials that infrastructure expenditures have been reviewed and are an appropriate use of tax dollars; and
* Reports on how the state distributes funds it receives, the estimated number of new or saved jobs, tax increases averted and other information.
You can also sign up for alerts when new information on stimulus funds is released by state agencies.
Gov. Brad Henry has appointed state Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage as the cop who will keep track of federal stimulus money in Oklahoma.
“In light of the size and scope of the stimulus package, complete transparency is essential to ensure public confidence,” said the governor. “Oklahoma taxpayers need and deserve to know how every dollar will be spent in our state. By posting all information on the web and having the auditor oversee the process, we can bolster public trust and ensure an informed citizenry.”
Apparently, the state will use its existing Open Books site to add a section for stimulus transparency.
They’re calling on Gov. Brad Henry to create an oversight board and state Web site so we can track federal stimulus money in Oklahoma.
From Matt Guillory, the institute’s executive director:
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a huge and complicated bill that will have implications for virtually every agency of state and local government, as well as the people of Oklahoma. The public and policymakers alike have a lot of questions about what funds will be available to Oklahoma and where and how these dollars will be allocated. Creating an accountability and oversight board made up of key elected officials, agency directors, and non-governmental representatives will allow both valuable input on the front-end of the allocation of resources and ongoing transparency as to how money is being spent.
Guillory notes that some states, such as Colorado, already have set up public Web sites for stimulus transparency.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Oklahomans for Responsible Government have a wrap up of some upcoming “Tea Party” events to protest the stimulus package.
There’s going to be an avalanche of federal money coming into Oklahoma in the next 12 to 18 months from the recently enacted stimulus bill.
Will we be able to track it? I’ve already blogged about the federal site, recovery.gov. But it appears the same kind of transparency at the local government level could be lacking. ProPublica has more on the latest memo by the Office of Management and Budget’s director, Peter Orszag:
“For instance, a grant could be given from the federal government to State A, which then gives a subgrant to City B (within State A), which hires a contractor to construct a bridge, which then hires a subcontractor to supply the concrete,” Orszag explains. “In this case, State A is the prime recipient and would be required to report the subgrant to City B. However, City B does not have any specific reporting obligations, nor does the contractor or subcontractor for the purposes of reporting for the Recovery.gov Web site.”
More credit to you if you can follow that convoluted trail of money. I got lost at “subgrant,” and I’m still working my way through Orszag’s 62-page memo. (PDF link)
If it’s any consolation, our elected officials don’t seem any more sure of how the money will trickle down to the states. Both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times had stories today about that issue.
Before it’s too late, maybe we should let our state officials know we’re interested in transparency. State Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage had some encouraging words in a recent AP story:
Steve Burrage, state auditor and inspector, said his office will work with federal agencies to provide oversight and audit results will be posted on the Internet.
“Everything is geared around accountability and transparency,” he said.
“I think as this whole thing plays out, it will become a lot clearer what the legislative intent was behind this stimulus money,” Burrage added.
Hopefully, Burrage isn’t talking about posting a bland report several years after the fact. Maybe this is an issue that gubernatorial aspirant Sen. Randy Brogdon can get behind? After all, he’s already been the force behind opening up recipients of state tax credits.