How Open and Transparent Will Reporting of State Level Stimulus Spending Be?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

I’m almost finished building my list of state government stimulus reporting web pages. Next week I’ll begin a more detailed state by state review of what these pages reveal about how “open and transparent” states are being about how they use ARRA money.

Below I discuss why I’m doing this, what I’ve learned so far, and what I’ll be looking for when I examine individual states.

Why I’m Doing This

The simple answer is that I’m a U.S. taxpayer. I want the stimulus program to succeed. I also believe that how it is managed will not only help the economy but can also be instrumental in reshaping the relationship between citizens and their government.

The more complex answer is that I am interested in how complex information can be made clear and understandable to normal, reasonable people, people who may not normally analyze data or search databases or indexes on a regular basis. Data on stimulus spending and its effects should not, it seems to me, require an accounting degree to understand. Nor should the details about how allocation and award decisions are made be shrouded in mystery.

Since state governments are critical to how stimulus money gets spent, how they report on this is critical to citizen understanding, confidence, and support.

What I’ve Learned So Far

* Not all states have pages set up yet to report on stimulus spending.
* Some states are still trying to decide whether or not to accept stimulus money.
* In some states the relationship between the executive and legislative branch in deciding how stimulus money should be spent is still being formulated.
* Some states have already started accepting proposals for stimulus spending.
* I have not yet seen a standard definition for the term “shovel ready.”
* Stimulus oversight at the state level varies departmentally from state to state.
* Some states appear to be “re-branding” Federal stimulus money as part of an existing or ongoing stimulus program; others identify closely with language and nomenclature used by the Federal government.
* Many states are posting .pdf documents describing various public disclosures.
* A few states are displaying details of money that is authorized by category.
* A number of advocacy programs have emerged to provide public scrutiny about how stimulus money is spent (I’ve included some of these in the list).
* So far few states are displaying spreadsheets or databases that can be manipulated by the user.
* Few states provide a name and phone number to call with questions.
* Some states have RSS feeds to publicize updates to the stimuls reporting page; more have email subscription features.
* Some states are using graphics to illustrate relative spending by category. One provides a county by county breakdown of current unemployment statistics (very sobering).

What I’ll Be Looking For

I’m interested in features related to transparency and usability.

By “transparency” I mean that processes by which money is allocated, awarded, and spent are reported in enough detail to know, as close to real time as possible, whether or not goals for hiring and economic stimulation are being met. It will be interesting to see how this occurs, for example, in states where there appears to be a tug of war brewing between the Executive and the Legislature over how and whether to accept and spend stimulus money.

By “usability” I mean that the spending of money and the reporting of its impacts are done in such a way so that special tools or expertise are not required in order to make the data usable or understandable. For example, it should be possible to quickly locate how much money has been spent on types of projects by a specific date in a specific geographic area.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dr. McDonald is an Alexandria Virginia based management consultant. He can be reached by telephone at 703-549-1030 or by email at [email protected]. His Twitter ID is @ddmcd. This was originally published on Dennis McDonald’s Web Site.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply


Very interesting. Look forward to the reporting. Honestly, I haven’t heard much about state sites besides the state of Virginia. The recovery act is a great case study for implementing the open, transparent, and participatory principles. Truly pioneering efforts – my best to all the web managers working hard on these issues.

Dennis McDonald

The states is where the money will be spent. I’m hoping there will be acceptance of similar concepts of transparency. It will still be too early to tell. But there are many self-designated watchdog groups springing up as well so I envision a lot of demand for access to data. If that happens, a lot of very traditional web and state communication operations are going to have to get up to speed very quickly.

On a lighter note: my preliminary review of states’ stimulus web pages shows embedded photos seem split between traditional “happy exec” pics and folks wearing hardhats.

Thanks for the comment!


Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.
Alexandria, Virginia USA
Web: http://www.ddmcd.com
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @ddmcd

Melissa Merrell

Hi Dennis – I work with the American Association for Budget and Program Analysis. We are a group of government analysts and private-sector practitioners. ARRA oversight is one issue that are members are closely watching so I appreciate all the work your doing. I’ll post a link to this entry from our group – Budgeteers. We’re just getting going and we’d love for you to join us!

Daniel Bevarly

Dennis – This is good stuff. Everyone should be focused on this process just for the reasons you outlined: fiscal responsibility, and just as important, a way to “stimulate” or reinvigorate government-citizen engagement processes.

Let me add another site as well for information on state efforts. the National Conf of State Legislatures (NCSL) is tracking as well and you can find their list at: http://tinyurl.com/8goh8p.

An interesting article on Monday talked about the lag time to still get (usable) data posted to Recovery.gov (http://tinyurl.com/czphoq). An interesting note I came away with is the perception, at least in this story, that it will be the fed’s responsibility to ensure responsible spending of the money at the state and local levels. This looks like a no-win situation for the Administration. It also mentions the role citizens and media will play as “watchdogs;” which is appropriate.

Finally, I want to add to your term of transparency. I am a big advocate of this concept. However, I read too many definitions that focus only on disclosure. In government, there is also a need for dialog, ongoing, throughout a transparent process. I’m going to repurpose and post my last blog to GovLoop today that expands upon this concept.

I look forward to following your work on this. It is very important for Gov2 proponents to do so as well.

Dan Bevarly
Web: http://www.aheadofideas.com
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @dbevarly

Melissa Merrell

Lucky Number! I also work as an analyst for congress on state and local issues. Your collection of links is a great resource – Thank you!