By Christopher Flavelle, ProPublica
The federal government Thursday released the first batch of reports detailing how recipients are spending the stimulus money. The reports cover the nearly 9,000 federal stimulus contracts awarded by the end of last month, which represent $16 billion of the $339 billion total that has been obligated by federal agencies or made available as tax relief. According to the data, which was posted this morning on Recovery.gov, that $16 billion has created or saved 30,383 jobs.
Although the information posted covers less than 5 percent of the stimulus money in process so far, it marks an important test for the Obama administration, which pledged to hold the stimulus to a high degree of transparency and accountability. Visitors to Recovery.gov can see, for example, that Colorado reported the highest number of jobs created or saved -- 4,695 and a half -- and Rhode Island had the smallest -- 5.93, as in 5 and 93 one-hundredths of a job. They can also see that a vaccine manufacturer called Sanofi Pasteur got the largest federal contract, at $1.4 billion, as well as see the winners of the other largest federal contracts.
Gary Bass, the executive director of OMB Watch, a watchdog group, said the government deserves credit for releasing the information. "This is the first time we've seen recipient reports in a timely and transparent manner," he said. "We have to acknowledge that that's a huge leap in transparency and accountability."
At the same time, Bass said, the information is presented in a way that makes it difficult for groups like his to use. He noted that users of the Web site can't search the data according to recipient.
"We're having a heck of a time downloading the data," he said. However, he added that the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversees Recovery.gov, may still improve the site. "I'm not pleased with what I've seen, but I also recognize that they're under the gun with incredible time pressure."
The government also faced criticism over the limited scope of stimulus money that's captured by the recipient reports. Every company or organization that received a contract, loan or grant under the stimulus was required to file a detailed report by Oct. 10 on how it spent that money. The information in those reports was to be posted on Recovery.gov in two stages: contract information today, then information from grant and loan recipients on Oct. 30.
But taken together, contracts, grants and loans cover just 35 percent of the total stimulus. The remaining money is split roughly between tax relief and entitlements, and neither will be covered by recipient reporting, meaning some $512 billion in spending won't be tracked on Recovery.gov. (Here's our ongoing rundown of stimulus spending.)
The Recovery Act specifically calls for only recipients of contracts, grants and loans to report how they use those funds. But Craig Jennings, a fiscal policy analyst with OMB Watch, said states should be required to report how they spend Medicaid and unemployment benefits, and how tax cuts are distributed; that way, he said, "the public could ensure that it's going to those who need it most."
We called Ed Pound, a spokesman for the Recovery Board, and asked for his reaction to OMB Watch's complaints. Pound called the Recovery.gov site a work in progress. "We're doing everything we can to be as transparent and accountable as we can be," he said. "We're going to have more features as we go along."
Pound added that as far as what information it collects from recipients, the Recovery Board follows the law. "Our job is to provide the public with detailed information on contracts, grants, and loans," he said, noting that general information about tax relief and entitlement spending is available on Recovery.gov.
This story originally appeared at ProPublica.