FederalReporting.gov teaches a lesson on transparency
Website gives stimulus funding recipients a site to securely report spending and job creation
FederalReporting.gov is a case study for transparency, some observers say.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 required the distribution of a $787 billion economic stimulus package to various recipients to boost economic growth throughout the country. ARRA provides an unprecedented level of transparency and visibility into the largest government funding program to date.
As a result, recipients of those funds at the state and local levels had to report quarterly on how much money they received and spent and how many jobs were created.
The recipients had to electronically report that information through the FederalReporting.gov website.
The law was passed in February 2009, and the website needed to be ready by the beginning of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1.
So the newly established Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, led by chairman Earl Devaney, had a difficult deadline to meet.
From left, Connie Dwyer, Shawn Kingsberry, Michael Wood, seated, James Warren and Kathleen Druitt.
After the law passed, it took a few months for government officials to figure out the reporting and system requirements. After looking at a few options, officials at the recovery board and Office of Management and Budget decided to use the Environmental Protection Agency’s Central Data Exchange as the technology platform for FederalReporting.gov. CDX facilitates data exchange between the federal government and other federal and state agencies and industry, said Kenyon Wells, vice president of CGI Federal.
As the primary contractor supporting the system for EPA, CGI was invited into the planning sessions and dove into the fire, Wells said.
Recovery board and OMB officials knew that they couldn’t start from scratch if they were to meet the tight deadline for a nationwide data-gathering system. By selecting CDX, they knew they could save a significant amount of money, reduce the government’s risk and meet the needs in a shortened timeline, Wells said.
The next few months involved figuring out the requirements, designing the look of the system, and determining which components of CDX developers could reuse and which ones developers needed to build from scratch. Then there was the process of developing the system and setting up a help-desk team to support it.
Think of CDX as a family of systems that are reusing many components, Wells said. “We reused many of the components, like the way we handle data files we get directly from a state or how to transfer data to other agencies.”
However, developers had to tailor the interface to track recovery information for FederalReporting.gov. The technology is a hybrid; the plumbing already existed, but a lot of the business logic had to be built, he said.
As the government and CGI teams started building the system, they needed to bring in various stakeholders — states, territories and municipalities across the country, in addition to universities — to get their requirements. All of those organizations would use the system once a quarter, but they'd all be accessing it within a 10-day window each quarter.
Gathering the requirements from stakeholders was a challenge. Every federal agency is a stakeholder. So there was a lot of back-and-forth communication among the recovery board, which was a new organization trying to establish itself, OMB and other federal agencies.
Additionally, building a system that would have light use for a long period of time and then get slammed for 10 days every quarter can be a technical challenge, Wells said.
“It was a wild ride but also one of the more rewarding single efforts of my career,” he said. Knowing that they were supporting an important mission, everyone — government workers and contractors — spent countless days and nights working to meet the deadlines.
“There were no day passes,” Wells said. “We worked every weekend and evenings for months. The government people and contractors — we were working side by side to get this thing over the goal line.”
In the end, they succeeded, he said, noting that the system started receiving data by the scheduled launch date.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office states that there was a much lower incident of waste, fraud and abuse in the stimulus funding than anyone expected. That is a tribute to how hard the recovery board team and supporting government and contractor employees worked and to the quality of the system, Wells said.
As the team worked to meet the requirement, the sheer importance of the project was not lost. Recovery board Chairman Devaney met every week with Vice President Joe Biden. That level of visibility — in which the vice president is asking how things are going — is impressive, Wells said.
Officials at OMB and every contributing agency were aware that failure was not an option, Wells said.
By choosing a single, proven solution, the government was able to bring FederalReporting.gov to market rapidly at a fraction of traditional costs, recovery board officials said.
The estimated costs for the design, development, implementation and operations of FederalReporting.gov from 2009 to March 2012 is $8 million compared to a foundational cost of $150 million in total funding for CDX and the Exchange Network. That comes out to a total cost avoidance of more than $140 million, according to recovery board officials.
Additionally, the consolidated solutions saved other federal agencies the cost of separately administering stimulus funds and implementing independent solutions. It also saved recipients from needing to register and report to multiple federal systems.
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