States Failing At Stimulus Accountability
Before taking office, President-elect Barack Obama promised that when it comes to stimulus spending, "every American will be able to hold Washington accountable for these decisions by going online to see how and where their tax dollars are being spent."
To date, that promise has yet to be realized.
Despite pledges of transparency and accountability, state governments across the country have largely failed to provide adequate systems for tracking how stimulus funds are being spent. The problem is that there is no nation-wide system in place to report even the most blatant instances of waste or abuse.
Last month the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) looked into resources for whistleblowers to report such matters at the 49 state recovery websites. Only 10 states -- Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, Oregon and Texas -- currently list procedures for reporting fraud and waste.
Three states -- Florida, Georgia and Maine -- were ranked the best because their websites provide multiple means of reporting fraud, waste and abuse, as well as a detailed outline of the legal protections to which whistleblowers are entitled. Two others -- Connecticut and Texas -- provide points of contact on both state and federal levels, giving complainants an alternative if they find their state reporting channels unresponsive.
Forty states, however, make no mention of reporting abuse anywhere on their websites.
At a time when the Internet is being used increasingly as a tool for political and economic engagement, good government groups say this finding is, at best, disappointing and, at worst, cause for major concern.
In some cases, a major obstacle is simply a lack of technological infrastructure.
"I have every confidence that the state is trying to do better but right now we don't have the (technological) resources," said Chris Keeley, Associate Director of Common Cause New York. Though he described the existing system as "atrocious," Keeley said he was optimistic that with adequate funding, all could be mended.
Others, however, are concerned that the problem is more systemic.
"I think that there is not necessarily in this country a culture of encouraging and supporting whistleblowing," said Ingrid Drake, an investigator for POGO. Adding a phone number and an email address to a website is hardly a feat of advanced computer programming, she pointed out. Further cause for concern is that of the 10 states with whistleblower functions on their websites, few provide more than a cursory nod to the type of protections available to those who come forward. Two sites -- Arkansas and Oregon -- made no mention of them whatsoever.
In April of this year, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) looked into the issue of whistleblower protection in general, ranking states according to the laws on their books. Under their rubric, California scored the highest with 75 percent. Though not a state, Washington D.C. scored a 79. Only seven states made even a passing grade of 60 percent or higher.
Faced with such problems, a vast network of public interest organizations are attempting to pick up the slack, many of them under the States for an Accountability and Transparent Recovery (STAR) Coalition. While federal laws are still being codified (the Obama administration currently lays out stimulus spending by category, by agency and by state on the site, Recovery.gov) these groups have begun conducting independent monitoring of stimulus disbursement at the state level.
Some of these open-government groups track stimulus spending on specific issues such as energy and education. Others simply follow the money trail. But all of them advocate for more support from official state oversight bodies, many of which seem to be dragging their feet, waiting for direction from Washington where so far the process has been ad hoc.
But there's no reason why states have to wait for the federal government to make the first move, say the public interest groups. One measure that would make the process of reporting fraud and waste far easier, they say, is the posting of contracts of local stimulus recipients on state websites.
Although there is no federal requirement to post contracts, Drake said, "that doesn't mean the contracts that are out already cannot be posted. We think there should be a race among the states to see who can be most accountable and transparent for the public."
In the end, Drake and others say, the initial lapses in stimulus oversight don't diminish the opportunity to create a new system of political participation and engagement. A culture of accountability could eventually empower taxpayers to monitor all state spending building on the precedent of stimulus oversight mechanisms.
"We see this as an opportunity to use technology and empower people to know where their tax dollars are going" said Drake, there's an "unprecedented level of transparency that's possible... with the Internet as a tool for minute to minute reporting." For the moment though, a whistleblowers' hotline would be nice.