ARRA: Going Beyond Compliance

The stimulus law's transparency requirements are an opportunity for governments to transform themselves permanently.
July 22, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Bill Eggers
By William D. Eggers  |  Contributor
Executive director of Deloitte's Center for Government Insights

"If Americans start hearing stories about how their money is being wasted on pet projects or funneled to favorite contractors or flat out lost to fraud or theft, faith in government at all levels and support for the overall program [the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA] will erode -- no matter that other parts of the program are successful." -- U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman

ARRA, the federal stimulus law, contains unprecedented transparency and accountability requirements that try to prevent Senator Lieberman's grim scenario from becoming reality. Already, huge amounts of time and effort have gone into building the capability to comply with these requirements.

Being satisfied with mere baseline compliance, however, would miss an important opportunity to create more lasting value for taxpayers. Instead of going back to business as usual after the ARRA funds dry up, governments should use the stimulus event to transform their organizations and create more business value. The following innovative approaches can help with both:

Be a transparency trailblazer. Despite dwindling resources and increased demand, overstretched government agencies need the eyes and ears of the public to help them identify instances of wasted and purloined ARRA funds.

By posting everything -- contracts, expenses, project details, etc. -- on a searchable, public Web site, citizens, media outlets and government watchdog groups help expose cases of waste, fraud and abuse.

Putting all the raw data online allows others to mash it up and analyze it in myriad ways that make the data more useful to everyone, including those responsible for overseeing Recovery Act funds. A site could, for instance, map contract awards for stimulus projects across all 50 states against the pool of bidders. Trends in this data could isolate potentially rigged bids and trigger further investigation.

Such "crowdsourcing" has been used by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to reduce a huge backlog in patent applications. Patent officers have engaged interested members of the public to provide information and commentary relevant to pending patent applications, dramatically expediting the review process.

Enhance real-time responsiveness to public concerns. Government agencies worry, with good reason, about the consequences of uploading data to the federal site before verifying its accuracy. They also worry that, lacking appropriate context, even a small problem could get blown out of proportion and create a PR nightmare.

A blog for ARRA based on the Transportation Security Agency's successful "Evolution of Security" could help to respond to citizen input, explain the data (and its shortcomings) and direct tips to the appropriate authority for investigation -- all in real time. This would provide agencies with a mechanism for responding to issues before they become overblown, while also assuring citizens that their input isn't just going into a black hole. The blog could also help to market existing resources, such as 311 lines and inspectors general across the country.

Get past the bottleneck: Create peer-based knowledge networks. Dubbed a "bewildering maze" by U.S. Senator Susan Collins, ARRA is anything but straightforward. This challenges the ability of government agencies to comply with ARRA's speed requirements.

One answer to this problem would be to create more informal platforms that facilitate information sharing and collaboration in real time, allowing governments to learn from one another's experience. Governments need, for example, a way for a grant manager in Colorado, who has the same ARRA question that's already come up in Massachusetts, to access relevant information in a timely fashion.

One potential model: Intellipedia, a collaborative workspace where 37,000 intelligence officials engage in spirited debate and freely contribute content to reports.

Employ tools for fact-based decision making. Thanks to advances in data analytics, organizations can now transform the terabytes of raw data they collect into useful information for fact-based decision making. In the private sector, this capability allows managers to quickly call up answers to questions like "Which customers are most likely to defect to a competitor?"

With vast amounts of data being collected for the purposes of tracking the fate of Recovery Act funds, similar tools could be a godsend for government officials who are responsible for quickly spending billions of dollars. Systems would look for specific patterns that might reveal cases of fraud. Predictive modeling, for instance, would throw up the "expected" value of claims and plot it against the actual value. Cases that show huge discrepancy between the actual and expected value are picked up for further investigation.

With ARRA's new transparency and accountability requirements likely to become the norm, government agencies are wise to develop new capabilities and approaches that will make the current program a success and help them prepare for whatever lies ahead.