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Transformation of Real-time Reporting: The Recovery Act

This article is part of a Special
Section on “AFTER THE RECOVERY ACT: TRANSFORMATION OR BUSINESS AS USUAL?” that ran
in the November/December 2010 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor
Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on
the print issue. See the Related Articles box for links to read more from the Special Section.

Donna S. Canestraro, Theresa A. Pardo, Natalie Helbig and Alison Heaphy

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) challenged state agencies to meet the Act’s new reporting requirements and prompted some remarkable transformations in response. Accepting the stimulus funds meant accepting the requirement for full accounting of all expenditures of ARRA funds to the public and to Washington through a single Web interface. To meet that requirement, state agencies had to track and report on expenditures and results in new ways that affected IT systems, business processes, and relationships across government levels and private recipients.

All ARRA fund recipients, state and local agencies and private contractors, were required to report not just expenditure data, but new accountability and outcome measures, such as job creation. ARRA also demanded strict reporting timeframes, but little or no federal assistance for new infrastructure or processes. In response to the Recovery Act’s unprecedented reporting policy, state agencies and their stakeholders developed new reporting structures based on new communication channels, enhanced executive commitment for enterprise solutions, and a new focus on data and data quality.

The experience gained in meeting many of these challenges includes valuable insights into IT and organizational innovation under pressure. During late 2009 and early 2010, the Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany, (CTG) conducted a series of forums to explore, collect, and document some of these insights and lessons from New York state agencies. Like many states, New York had to rely on a mix of existing and newly developed resources, relationships, and processes to meet these new requirements. At these forums, many of the NY agencies shared how they leveraged existing IT solutions and created new methods to meet the Recovery Act’s reporting requirements. Agency staff also described how they approached the first reporting deadline, built new relationships, and implemented new processes to support the continued reporting endeavor.

For many of the state recipients, the reporting requirements of the Recovery Act generated transformative practices, such as creating new channels of communication both internally and externally, improving data quality and governance capabilities, and finding a new appreciation of the value of information and reporting from a business analytics perspective. However, for many more, the impact and sustainability of these transformative practices is yet to be experienced.

The CTG forums gave the agencies opportunities to share their insights and strategies as they approached the first reporting deadline. The participants were eager and appreciative of the opportunity to share their own insights with their colleagues and learn how other agencies addressed the requirements. One participant summed it up by stating “we knew there are many ways to approach this and at times we fell back on old processes but we recognize there had to be better ways to do this. These forums provided us with an opportunity to learn from our colleagues in ways we never had the opportunities to do before.”

New Channels of Communication
The Act channeled funds to a much larger number of recipients than the agency’s normal circle of funding recipients. Due to the large volume of sub-recipients, agencies had to find new ways to collect and share information and forge new and innovative ways to communicate. State agencies formed new internal partnerships and relationships as well as linking with other agencies and sub-recipients. They used these new links to provide guidance on how to comply with the various funding requirements and ways to report the needed data. Some agencies explored the use of conferencing software to share the constantly changing guidance from the federal government with their sub-recipients, who were often geographically dispersed.

State agencies needed to develop the new metrics being used to measure outcomes and educate sub-recipients on how to use the metrics to report results. The new metrics included such things the number of projects that were shovel ready or the number of jobs created. Implementing these new metrics required a solid shared understanding among participants for collecting the appropriate data, and new dialogs about the meaning of performance with both internal and external stakeholders.

State agencies also needed new ways to handle the greatly increased volume of data required for reporting. The resulting data handling innovations ran the gamut from enhanced spreadsheets to agencies partnering with their IT department to creating new and improved data repositories. These innovative practices allowed for recipients and sub-recipients to electronically submit their results versus the manual process of faxing spreadsheets.

Agencies had to find new ways to coordinate internal work. Many responded by creating cross-organizational teams to share information needs and work practices among divisions that otherwise did not work in a coordinated way. Some agencies used virtual collaborative software to help organize internal efforts and facilitate the communication across functional teams. These techniques smoothed interactions among units that were all a part of the reporting, but had their own work practices, desired levels of information quality, and uses for the information, such as internal controls, auditing, and risk management process.

Recognition of the need for improved data quality and governance based on use. The reporting requirements of the Act drive home the importance data quality and governance. Concern for data quality was central, no longer just an issue for the IT department but as a business issue that cut across all facets of the agency. The need for consistent, timely data required new real-time processes of reviews and approvals, spurred in part by the added pressure to avoid public exposure of mistakes in the data. Agencies realized that there were going to be data quality issues, if for no other reason than the volume of data being collected and the rapid turn around required by the reporting requirements.

To help, the federal government instituted reporting schedules that allowed for correction after data was uploaded to the federal system. Several of the agencies devised new data entry processes for sub-recipients to avoid many of the data entry issues that were inherent in the old reporting methods. Others created new capabilities that allowed sub-recipients enter data directly into a web enabled form, thus avoiding challenges inherent in the old methods.

More than just impacts on data quality, the new emphases on transparency in the Act resulted in new users and uses of the information, such as barometers, geo-coding, and related data linkages. Some of the new uses of the data depended upon information about the context of data collection. Both program and IT professionals spoke of the importance of understanding data use from the ‘consumer’s’ perspective. Understanding this has resulted in agencies rethinking how their IT systems and current reporting structures needed to be changed to accommodate the requirement for real-time data consumption.

The value of information and reporting for business analytics. The Act elevated the importance of data and reporting in new ways, with a new emphasis on how to communicate results to new audiences and uses. Agencies did not previously have data to drive business outcomes. Participants in the forums spoke to the challenges this created when their executive leadership asked the question such as “Why can’t we have this type of reporting for everything?”

Overall, the majority of agencies who participated in the forums reported improving their capability for dealing with information for Recovery Act reporting. However it remains unclear whether these new capabilities will propagate through their organizations. What we do know is that this new level of reporting and transparency is the “new normal,” institutionalized through a memorandum from Office of Management and Budget to build on the achievements and lessons learned from the Recovery Act.

The challenge now is for all agencies to learn from their colleague’s experiences in Recovery Act reporting and use that new knowledge to create capabilities for transformational change to improve information-based transparency.

Therefore the question of whether or not the Recovery Act resulted in transformational changes should not be answered in a simple “yes” or “no,” but “too soon to tell.” The question instead should be whether the transformation that was experienced by many of the Recovery Act recipients was enough to result in sustained changed? In order to have that, we will need to incorporate many of the lessons learned from this experience into our day-to-day information management practices.

Donna S. Canestraro is program manager, Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany. Email: [email protected]

Theresa A. Pardo is director, Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany. Email: [email protected]

Natalie Helbig is program associate, Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany. Email: [email protected]

Alison Heaphy is communication manager, Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany. Email: [email protected]

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