TOPICS > Politics

Stimulus Bill Data Offer Glimpse of Effectiveness

BY Travis Daub  October 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT

Contractors at work; via Flickr

New data, released on the government-run Web site Recovery.gov on Oct. 14, show the stimulus program has created or saved at least 30,383 jobs, though that covers only a sliver of the total aid package. Jared Bernstein, a senior economic advisor in the Obama administration, said in a White House blog post the data could be extrapolated to show at least one million jobs created or saved so far, based on the total amount spent.

“These reports cover only direct, tangible jobs created by recipients, which means there are even more jobs created when those folks go out and spend their new earnings — the so-called multiplier effect,” Bernstein wrote.

In New Jersey, for example, Newark Preschool Council reported funding seven Head Start classrooms and creating 18 jobs over the summer with the $1.2 million it received.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, engineering firm CH2M HILL says it has kept three jobs so far. It received $562,614.49 in contracts.

Only a slim fraction of money allocated has actually been spent so far, according to the new figures. Of the $16 billion in contracts awarded, recipients report they’ve only received around $2.2 billion.

Individual states give a similar pic

ture: Nebraska reported $48.4 million in contracts awarded, of which about $1.6 million has been spent. Oregon has gotten money to contractors faster, reporting $48.6 million spent of $105.7 million awarded. Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February, allocating $787 billion in an effort to revive an economy sagging under the weight of a Wall Street meltdown and subprime mortgage crisis. Unemployment has continued to rise in the interim, reaching a national rate of 9.8 percent in September.

By far the largest portion of money from the stimulus comes in the form of grants to state and local agencies. Those make up about $200 billion of the total package. Contracts and loans make up about $16 billion and $23 billion, respectively.

The data show contracts awarded by federal and state agencies, giving users access to fine-grain information on what projects cost and how many people were employed. Visitors to the site can download a full list of contracts awarded.

“The recovery board has done an excellent job relative to what the rest of the government has done as far as publishing data and getting it online,” said Clay Johnson, director of the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs.

That said, “this better not be the end of their work,” he added.

Johnson’s biggest complaint, echoed by other transparency advocates, is that the contract information is, in some cases, almost incomprehensible to those not immersed in government operations. (See an example.)

“It’s almost as if they’re not written by humans,” Johnson said. “Government speaks a different language than the rest of America, especially when it comes to procurement.”

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a government watchdog group, said the Recovery Act “is proving to be the most transparent federal spending law ever enacted,” though he too noted that Recovery.gov remains difficult to navigate and the data can be confusing or misleading.

But within days of the initial release of the stimulus data, Recovery.gov has already fixed one issue: the original information was kept in 120 separate files. That information was condensed over the weekend into one spreadsheet listing all 9,103 federal contracts.

“This is definitely a good sign that the Board and the Recovery.gov tech team are hearing the transparency community and responding to its concerns,” OMB Watch’s Craig Jennings wrote in a blog post Monday.

The government’s next major release of information comes at the end of this month, when Recovery.gov will post data on grants and loans.

Coming Thursday: Find a breakdown of where and how stimulus dollars are being spent across the country in our Patchwork Nation project.