The Big City Take on Federal Spending
New Yorkers aren’t known for sitting around and waiting for things to happen.
So, in November 2009, feeling more feedback was needed from Washington on the new Recovery program, New York City’s Chief Recovery Officer began contacting other major cities to get a sense of what they were experiencing. They had pretty much the same complaints about poor communication, says Michelle Light, the NYC Recovery Chief.
From those initial contacts was born the ARRA Big City Network, which includes almost two dozen cities that have received funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, otherwise known as ARRA. The cities include Atlanta, Boston, Jacksonville, FL, Milwaukee, Portland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Phoenix.
“We were filling a void. In the early stages of the program, it wasn’t clear to us what the Recovery Board was responsible for, what OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] was responsible for, and what the White House was responsible for,’’ says Ms. Light. “We mobilized so we could get better feedback.’’
That dedication paid dividends, as is quite clear from a survey of its members completed late last year by the ARRA Big City Network. The survey showed that feedback from Washington had improved dramatically during the three-year history of the program. According to the survey, 66 percent of the respondents said that federal agencies had “often’’ communicated with them. Another 23.29 per cent described that communication as “sometimes.’’
The ARRA Big City Network’s survey was aimed at providing insights to the Government Accountability and Transparency Board. The so-called GAT Board, of which I am a member, was created last year by President Obama to improve transparency and accountability in federal spending. The Board issued its report to the President in December.
At a fundamental level, the cities were describing the lessons they had learned from participating in the $840 billion Recovery program. New York City, for instance, has plenty of experience to draw on — the city has received direct Recovery funding of about $7 billion.
Describing their experience submitting spending reports under the Recovery program, nearly 62 percent of the respondents thought the system brought about “greater transparency.’’ Some 40 percent thought the reporting system led to “more accountability in the way funds are spent.’’
Half of the respondents thought the program guidance from Washington was “vague or conflicting,’’ while nearly half believed that reporting required “duplicative paperwork.’’
Looking to the future, respondents were asked about how often reports should be filed if a reporting system similar to the Recovery program were implemented for all government spending. The answer: 75 percent believed the reports should be submitted quarterly — the same as ARRA reporting.
However, even with quarterly reporting, says Ms. Light, “there’s always a level of stress.’’ She says that Congress, in creating the Recovery program, insisted on recipients submitting reports within 10 days of the end of a calendar quarter — “a crushing timeframe.’’ She argues that for future spending submissions, it would better to give recipients a month to submit their reports. “It’s not easy,’’ she says, “to pull all of this together when you have some of our agencies with 40 to 50 local partners and vendors.’’
Respondents, 68 percent of them, also thought it was important to “standardize and consolidate reporting documents’’ to avoid excessive and redundant paperwork. “The redundancy piece was something that recipients really struggled with,’’ Ms. Light says. Cities, she said, would fill out a Recovery spending report, then would be required to submit the same information to the agency that funded the project.
“Part of our hope and intention with the survey is to be able to show we are willing partners in the process and totally understand the importance of accountability and transparency,’’ she says. “We need to have a continual dialogue with the federal government, which also needs to keep in mind the costs and burdens involved in the reporting process.’’
–Kathleen S. Tighe, Chair, Recovery Board