On February 17, 2009, in the midst of the prolonged U.S. and global recession, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the huge $787 billion stimulus package intended to save or create 3.5 million American jobs and to promote a U.S. economic recovery from the downturn that had begun over a year earlier and worsened with the financial crisis of late 2008. Of the total $787 billion, approximately 37% ($288 billion) is devoted to tax cuts, 18% ($144 billion) is allocated to state and local fiscal relief, and 45% ($357 billion) is directed at federal social programs and federal spending programs. In order to allow ordinary American citizens to see where such vast sums of taxpayer dollars are actually going, the law expressly provided for the establishment of a “Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board” to coordinate and conduct oversight of stimulus funds. In an unusual move, the law also directed that this Board shall “establish and maintain… a user-friendly, public-facing website to foster greater accountability and transparency in the use of covered funds.” The law clearly requires all recipients of recovery funds (whether grant, loan, or contract), including State governments, to provide quarterly reports to the Federal agency from which funds were obtained. These recipient reports must include the amount of funds received, the amount expended or obligated to date, a description of the project/activity for which the funds were used, as well as an evaluation of project completion status and an estimate of the number of jobs created or saved by the project or activity.
As a result of the above requirements and based on the detailed information reported by stimulus fund recipients, the U.S. government set up and operates the publicly available www.recovery.gov internet website. This website pulls together and presents in a relatively easy-to-read manner the very large amount of data collected by the federal government on recovery-related spending. (As an example of the scale of information being received, during the 10-day required reporting period in early October for the quarter that ended on September 30, fund recipients filed a total of over 130,000 reports—roughly 13,000 for contracts, almost 117,000 for grants, and just over 600 for loans.) The website features an interactive web map of the United States, which allows visitors both to see at a glance how stimulus dollars are distributed by state, and also to zoom in on the map down to the street level and locate where stimulus money is going in their own neighborhood or in any community of interest in the United States. By clicking on a point on the map corresponding to a fund recipient, detailed data on the project appears, including the amount of funding received, details and status of the project, and estimated number of jobs saved or created. Of note, an interesting data point included for the particularly large awards is a list of the annual salaries of the top 5 officers of the company. Executive compensation is a delicate issue in the United States—many Americans were outraged in 2008 to learn that financial companies bailed out with taxpayer money were paying their managers multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses—and so the inclusion of executive pay data is meant to respond to the concerns of ordinary Americans, whose taxes are ultimately paying for the stimulus funds.
In addition to the interactive map and associated database of stimulus-funded projects, the Recovery.gov website also includes an overview of the stimulus legislation and its goals, feature articles on selected representative projects being funded with stimulus dollars, links to Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that evaluate the success of the stimulus spending, and a link for citizens to report “waste, fraud, or abuse” associated with the recovery program.
Separate from the government’s own Recovery.gov website, the private Seattle-based consulting/business-solutions firm ONVIA established its own website, Recovery.org, to track stimulus spending based on the publicly available data reported by fund recipients and the various government agencies and departments involved in stimulus programs. During the first three months of Recovery Act spending, when the government was slow to provide data on its recovery.gov website, Onvia’s website was more detailed and more useful. However, the government website was then redesigned and updated, and now provides more information that the recovery.org site.
Compared to the rather thorough and continually updated approach to tracking government spending taken by the Recovery.gov and Recovery.org sites in the U.S., the “JIGYOU-SHIWAKE” that has been receiving a lot of play in the Japanese media certainly seems to be a temporary event and has the air of a performance. Perhaps there may be something to learn from the American example of the web-data approach.
Just as Recovery.gov website phrases such as “Track the money” and “Where is the money going?” suggest, a matter of great interest among general citizens is the question: “Just how are all the taxes that I paid being spent?” In the future even more transparency and accountability will be asked of the government.
As part of this accounting, it is not only important to show how much has been invested (input), but also to show to what extent the plans have been carried out (execution), and also to what degree a result — such as new employment, reduction of future expenses, etc. — has been achieved (outcome). The current JIGYOU-SHIWAKE approach, which deals with only 447 projects of a nation-wide total of some 3,000 and evaluates them only very briefly, is hardly a complete accounting of the use of tax revenues. Something along the lines of Recovery.gov or Recovery.org is required, with their open publication of project data in a thorough and continuing manner.
However, for this to occur, the cooperation of the relevant government ministries and organizations is indispensible, and it would become possible through the establishment of a framework, like the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board in the U.S., with institutional authority and binding power. Among Japanese private companies, there is ample opportunity to support this endeavor, in the detailed data analysis of public funds use and the application of the latest IT technology to make the data and analysis publicly available.
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