BY JEFF TITTEL
When the State Auditor's office raises concerns about oversight and transparencies around the federal stimulus package spending, New Jerseyans should pay attention. Money spent on projects like boosting energy efficiency is a win-win for New Jersey. Every dollar we spend on efficiency will save four dollars and it will create thousands of good jobs.
Without transparency, however, New Jersey's expected $17 billion share from the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act (ARRA) might be wasted. That's why the AARA included provisions to encourage states to develop websites to provide the public with extensive data on the way stimulus spending is spreading through the economy. Unfortunately, most states are not living up to President Obama's promise that the stimulus would be carried out with "an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability."
A recent report published by the non-profit research group Good Jobs First finds that most states, including
New Jersey, are doing a poor job in reporting details on stimulus spending on the websites they have created precisely to educate the public about the ARRA.
Good Jobs First rated each state on how good its official stimulus website is in providing data on the numerous categories of ARRA funding, on the geographic distribution of spending around the state, and on specific spending projects, especially those being carried out by private contractors. On a scale of 0 to 100, the typical state scored only 25. New Jersey scored 20. New Jersey came in below average, tied for 28th place.
One of the biggest areas of deficiency is reporting on job creation - a primary objective of the stimulus. Only four states post any jobs data on their main ARRA website. Fewer than half the states provide details on specific stimulus projects, such as a highway upgrade or a school renovation, and the contractors hired to do the work.
There are some simple steps that New Jersey and other states can take to make their ARRA websites more effective:
- Put a summary of key information about ARRA spending at the top of the home page of the site. A clear bar graph, pie chart or table showing the main spending flows goes a long way in helping the user begin to see what the Recovery Act is all about. There should be clear links to pages with details about the various specific programs.
- Provide a map or a table showing how overall ARRA spending and the amounts in key categories are being distributed around the state.
- Along with information on spending streams, provide information on individual projects being funded by those programs, such as a particular transit improvement or weatherization effort. Where possible, display the location of the projects on maps -- preferably interactive displays that allow one to drill down for details.
- For projects carried out by private contractors, be open about the contract award process and the identity of the companies that win bidding competitions. Post the bids and the details, including the full text, of the contract awarded to the winner.
- While the federal government's Council of Economic Advisers is responsible for estimating the overall employment impacts of ARRA and the federal Recovery.gov website will report jobs data on some (but not all) individual projects, state ARRA sites should also include employment data in their project reporting.
- State ARRA sites should make it clear when individual projects began work (or are expected to start), how long they are expected to run and what percentage was complete as of the latest reporting date.
- States should make their ARRA websites as user-friendly as possible. This means keeping all or most of the program and project information on the main site, rather than requiring users to engage in an online scavenger hunt across agency web pages. Sites should have standard web features such as a search engine and a site map.
- ARRA sites should provide readily accessible information about the ways that individuals, organizations and businesses can apply for stimulus grants and contracts. This should include contact information and selection criteria.
Most of these recommendations are simply matters of good web design and best practices in government transparency. Yet the use of ARRA websites to inform the public can play a larger role. Showing what government is doing to address the recession can bolster public confidence in the economy and hasten the process of recovery.
Jeff Tittel is the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. The Good Jobs First report and an appendix on each state can be found online at: www.goodjobsfirst.org/stimulusweb.cfm