Recovery Act:

Increasing the Public's Understanding of What Funds Are Being Spent on and What Outcomes Are Expected

GAO-10-581: Published: May 27, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 25, 2010.

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A hallmark of efforts to implement the $862 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) is to be transparent and accountable about what the money is being spent on and what is being achieved. To help achieve these goals, recipients are to report every 3 months on their award activities and expected outcomes, among other things. This information is available on Recovery.gov, the government's official Recovery Act Web site. As requested, this report covers 11 federal programs focused on broadband, energy, transportation, federal buildings, and civil works activities, representing $67 billion in Recovery Act funding. Primarily, the report (1) describes how the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and federal agencies implemented the act to report funds' uses and (2) assesses the extent to which descriptions of awards meet GAO's transparency criteria. It also describes reported uses of funds for the 11 programs. GAO reviewed requirements for reporting in the act and OMB's guidance. Based on these requirements, GAO developed a transparency assessment and applied it to a probability sample of descriptions from 14,089 recipient reports. In addition, GAO reviewed 52 projects in detail in states that it had contacted as part of its bimonthly reviews and interviewed federal, state, and local officials about their experiences with reporting descriptions of awards.

This report focuses on one aspect of transparency and accountability: the extent to which descriptions of awards found on Recovery.gov foster a basic understanding of award activities and expected outcomes. Section 1512 of the act created broad requirements for recipient reporting. The act does not further explain these requirements. To implement the act, OMB provided generic guidance instructing recipients to report narrative information, among other things, that captures the overall purpose of the award and expected results. GAO estimates that, for the nine programs with funds awarded by December 31, 2009, 25 percent of the descriptions met its transparency criteria; that is, they had sufficiently clear and complete information on the award's purpose, scope and nature of activities, location, cost, outcomes, and status of work. Two factors may have influenced what GAO found. First, GAO's results were somewhat more positive for programs in which the federal agencies provided program-specific materials that supplemented OMB's guidance with detailed information on what recipients should include in the narrative fields. The highway, transit, and geothermal programs that GAO reviewed tended to have more transparent descriptions compared with programs that only supplied general guidance. Second, officials in many programs told GAO that they did not typically include the narrative fields in their data quality reviews. While an estimated three-quarters of the recipient-reported information did not fully meet GAO's transparency criteria--thus potentially hampering understanding of what is being achieved with Recovery Act funding--GAO found that federal and state Recovery Act Web sites, in some cases, provided additional information that could aid the public in understanding what its tax dollars are being spent on and what outcomes are expected. GAO collected information on the reported uses of funds from federal agencies for the 11 programs it reviewed. These uses ranged from improving infrastructure to improving Internet access. Agencies have obligated program funds at different rates, which may be due, in part, to whether the programs were new, existing, or received sizable funding increases. GAO also asked the federal agencies and selected state agencies in its review about how they make Recovery Act project information available to the public and what feedback they have received. Each agency has established a Recovery Act Web site, as have states, some state auditors and Inspectors General, and some recipients. These sites contain varying amounts of information, such as program objectives, lists of projects, and interactive maps. To further public understanding of what Recovery Act funds are being spent on and the expected results, GAO recommends that the Director, OMB, (1) revise the agency's recipient reporting guidance to remedy the unclear examples and enhance instructions for completing narrative fields; (2) work with agencies to determine whether supplemental guidance is needed to meet the intent of the act and whether that supplemental guidance or other technical assistance proposed by agencies dealing with narrative descriptions of awards provides for transparent descriptions of funded activities; and (3) periodically review, in partnership with federal agencies, the recipients' descriptions of awards to determine whether the information provides a basic understanding of the uses of the funds and expected outcomes, and, if not, encourage agencies to develop or improve program-specific guidance, as well as work with the Recovery Board as the board reviews the results of agencies' data quality reviews to further reinforce actions to meet transparency goals. In commenting on a draft of this report, OMB agreed with GAO's recommendations. OMB and the federal agencies provided a number of specific comments, many of which GAO incorporated.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A hallmark of efforts to implement the $862 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) was to be transparent and accountable about what the money was spent on and what was achieved. To help realize these goals, recipients of Recovery Act awards were required to report information on each award such as cost, location, and a description of the activities to be carried out every 3 months. This reported information was made available on the government's official Recovery Act Web site, Recovery.gov. In 2010, we assessed a probability sample of award descriptions for nine Recovery Act programs against transparency criteria we developed based on the Recovery Act and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance, among other sources. We found that about a quarter of the recipient-reported descriptions met the transparency criteria while the remaining three-quarters of the descriptions lacked at least some important information, potentially hampering understanding of what was being achieved with Recovery Act funding. We recommended that the Director of OMB revise its recipient reporting guidance, including the Recipient Reporting Data Model, to provide recipients with clearer general instructions and examples for narrative fields aimed at fostering more complete information on the uses of funds and expected outcomes. In September 2014, we confirmed that OMB issued guidance in September 2010 to recipients and federal agencies to improve the transparency of narrative descriptions. OMB concurrently updated its Recipient Reporting Data model with improved examples and clarifying the instructions for some narrative fields including the award description field. By taking these steps, OMB helped ensure the transparency of narrative award descriptions on Recovery.gov, a key mechanism through which the public could understand how their tax dollars were spent and what was achieved from these expenditures

    Recommendation: To further the goals of public understanding of what Recovery Act funds are being spent on and what results are expected, the Director, Office of Management and Budget, should revise OMB's recipient reporting guidance, including the Recipient Reporting Data Model, to provide recipients with clearer general instructions and examples for narrative fields aimed at fostering more complete information on the uses of funds and expected outcomes.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions OMB has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To further the goals of public understanding of what Recovery Act funds are being spent on and what results are expected, the Director, Office of Management and Budget, should work with executive departments and agencies to determine (1) whether supplemental guidance is needed to meet, in a reasonable and cost-effective way, the intent of the Recovery Act for reporting on projects and activities and (2) whether that supplemental guidance or other agency-proposed technical assistance dealing with narrative descriptions of awards provides for transparent descriptions of funded activities.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions OMB has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To further the goals of public understanding of what Recovery Act funds are being spent on and what results are expected, the Director, Office of Management and Budget, should periodically (1) review, in partnership with executive departments and agencies, the descriptions of awards--in particular, the narrative fields--submitted by recipients to determine whether the information provides a basic understanding of the uses of the funds and the expected outcomes, and, if not, determine what actions to take, including encouraging agencies to develop or improve program-specific guidance and (2) work with the Recovery Board on the board's assessments of departments' and agencies' data quality reviews to ensure the adequacy of these reviews and further reinforce actions to meet transparency goals.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

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