July 2, 2012

Reporting on stimulus funds took fast creativity, says report co-authored by Dean Sandra Archibald

News and Information

Jean Campbell (left), a research assistant professor of pathology, demonstrates a multiscope for a student from the Chief Leschi School District in Puyallup. Recovery Act funds supported the Native Youth Enrichment Program, which encourages students via things such as visits to the UW.

Jean Campbell (left), a research assistant professor of pathology, demonstrates a multiscope for a student from the Chief Leschi School District in Puyallup. Recovery Act funds supported the Native Youth Enrichment Program, which encourages students via things such as visits to the UW.

What do you do when $787 billion has to be spent, and the people providing the money demand fast, accurate accounting?

You set tight deadlines and retool the rules for transparency and accountability.

Sandra Archibald, dean of the UW Evans School of Public Affairs, led a national team that recently completed a report detailing lessons federal managers learned from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Signed into law in February 2009, the Recovery Act was geared to stimulate the economy by saving existing jobs and creating new ones. It was also intended to spur both immediate and long-term growth while fostering greater accountability in government spending.

The managers designed new models for their programs and new ways to implement them, often with little or no administrative funding, said Archibald, who was asked by the White House to develop and publish the Recovery Act case studies.

“The act generated new ways of doing government business, and they are highly applicable in todays resource-challenged world,” Archibald said.

The report is based on case studies and interviews of the managers. The case studies are available in the Electronic Hallway at the Evans School.

The money needed to be spent without delay because historically, spending associated with stimulus money has tended to peak after a recession, creating inflation instead of jobs. The Recovery Act, which President Barack Obama signed a month after taking office, mandated that 70 percent of the $787 billion be spent within 17 months. There was worry, however, that rapid spending might lead to an estimated $50 billion in waste, fraud or abuse. Legislators thus wrote stringent requirements about transparency and accountability into the law.

To date, the UW has received 813 awards totaling $373,700,000, including four new awards in May. Funds must be used before October 2013.

The report says that in meeting Recovery Act requirements, managers faced four common challenges:

  • Meeting new accountability requirements;
  • Managing huge spikes in spending, sometimes equivalent to four or five times normal spending;
  • Developing rules, guidelines and training for thousands of recipients in a matter of weeks;
  • Navigating or redesigning traditional processes that were too slow to meet Recovery Act deadlines.

Within weeks of the Recovery Act announcement, an executive team at the UW began work. UW Human Resources also arranged fast-track hiring for proposals that received funding.

Accountability was a huge challenge, said Lynne Chronister, assistant vice provost for research, who co-led the UW Recovery ActTeam. For each funded proposal, Chronister and the team had to report on 99 data elements, including number of jobs created, funds spent during the quarter and scientific progress.

The report says managers devised strategies that could be applied to other large-scale challenges. They included:

  • Setting deadlines to create a sense of urgency;
  • Creating dedicated project teams, including temporary but full-time offices driven by key people;
  • Using technology to track progress;
  • Streamlining grant and contract processes.

Other authors of the report are Kay Sterner, a research grant writer at the Evans School; Rich Callahan, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco; and H. Brinton Milward, director of the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona.

The IBM Center for the Business of Government sponsored the report.