The Recovery Act: The Transparency Gift that Keeps on Giving
Largely lost in the partisan bickering over the stimulus has been the law's enormous positive impact on improving government transparency. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) is not just the most transparent federal spending bill in U.S. history—the changes it pioneered will endure even after the stimulus winds down.
By now, many curious Americans have explored spending and job-creation on ARRA projects in their communities at recovery.gov. About 35 percent of ARRA funding is revealed there: every grant, loan and contract. And the reporting extends beyond the primary recipient one level down to sub-recipients. But few people noticed that the Office of Management and Budget applied that extended reporting to the main federal disclosure website USAspending.gov (created thanks to a bill championed by then-Senator Obama).
Even fewer people noticed that the quality of ARRA data improved greatly in October 2010: we can now trace the money as it changes hands three times, instead of two, to sub-sub-recipients. For people concerned about companies tied to political contributions, offshoring of jobs, violations of workplace laws, etc., this deeper data is a potential gold mine for accountability.
In a little-noticed provision, the Recovery Act also required privately-held companies that do a large share of their business with the federal government to reveal the compensation of their five highest-paid executives. We blogged about this when the first round of data came out, revealing executive pay at the high-profile “Beltway Bandit” consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
The Recovery Act has also enabled a side-by-side analysis of transportation spending—comparing job creation from highway-building versus public transportation—that was simply not possible before: apples-to-apples data did not exist. However, in early 2010 Smart Growth America, the United States Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Neighborhood Technology issued “What We Learned from the Stimulus,” finding that transit construction creates 84 percent more work-months than does highway-building. That reinforced our own 2003 finding, in “The Jobs Are Back in Town” that smart growth creates more work for Building Trades union members than does sprawl.
ARRA data and the mapping functions at recovery.gov have also encouraged more people to think about the geographic distribution of government spending (one of our pet peeves here at Good Jobs First). For example, the Voices of California Coalition examined ARRA spending by local jurisdiction and found many hard-hit communities getting little if any dollars and jobs.
In New York City, Community Voices Heard coupled ARRA jobs data along with data from the local public housing authority and its own door-to-door survey work to prove that, despite HUD Section 3 rules intended to ensure that public housing residents get job opportunities when their residences are rehabilitated, very few ARRA-funded jobs went to New York City Housing Authority residents. See “Bad Arithmetic.”
In Texas, the Center for Public Policy Priorities reported on that state's performance on weatherization spending and Policy Matters Ohio mapped where clean energy jobs were created, finding they were “well targeted to areas of economic distress.”
Finally, we here at Good Jobs First have closely monitored how state governments have mirrored Uncle Sam's ARRA transparency boost, publishing two “report card” studies on state government Recovery Act websites. Every single state put up such a website—even though they had no legal obligation to do so!
Of course, the states did have more obligations than anyone else to provide ARRA jobs data, since so much of the money flows through state agencies, making them primary recipients. So it was no exaggeration to call ARRA “a giant crash course on disclosure for state governments.” And lo and behold, in December 2010 when we revisited the issue of how well state governments disclose their own spending for job creation, we found the number of states naming names online had jumped from 24 to 37.