Sunday, January 20, 2013

Watching the Watchdog: Gov't Accountability Office Issued Only Two of Six Bimonthly Reports Required By 2009 Recovery Act in 2012 [Updated]

    When Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, one of the provisions to ensure transparency instructed the Government Accountability Office to issue bimonthly reports on the use of funds authorized in the Recovery Act and to make those reports available on the internet.  However, after fairly consistent reports in the first year, the regularity of the reports began to wane, and in 2012, only two such reports were posted on the Recovery.gov website.  Rather than bimonthly review reports at 60-day intervals, the average report interval has been more than 90 days, more than 50% longer than the statutory requirement.

    One section of the Recovery website is titled GAO Findings.  A note at the top of the page says:
 The Recovery Act requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the use of Recovery funds by states and localities every two months. Its reports are below[.]
    Indeed, all the reports issued since the inception of the program are available on the site.  The summaries of the first three reports in 2009 each make reference to a "bimonthly report."  After that, the term is dropped and only makes one more appearance in the December 2010 report which refers to "previous bimonthly and recipient reporting reviews."  However, in both the highlights and full version of even the most recent report (October 2012,) the bimonthly requirement is mentioned.

    With that in mind, here are the issue dates of the reports listed on Recovery.gov:
  1. April 28, 2009
  2. July 8, 2009
  3. September 23, 2009
  4. November 19, 2009
  5. December 10, 2009
  6. March 3, 2010
  7. May 26, 2010
  8. September 20, 2010
  9. December 15, 2010
  10. April 7, 2011
  11. June 29, 2011 
  12. June 29, 2011 (two reports issued on same day)
  13. September 22, 2011
  14. December 16, 2011
  15. June 18, 2012
  16. October 15, 2012
    If bimonthly reports had been issued on a strict schedule, there would have been 23 reports at about 61 day intervals as opposed to 15 reports at an average interval of 92 days (not counting the two reports issued on the same day).  Days between reports for the last two (2012) were 185 days and 119 days.  As of January 20, 2013, another 97 days have passed since the most recent report.

    Interestingly, the GAO does not dispute this finding, although a slight discrepancy exists. In a speech on November 16, 2012, in Beijing, China, Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States, made the following statement concerning the reviews and reporting by the GAO:
Since 2009, GAO has issued 17 bimonthly review reports and one more is underway.  And we have issued more than 100 other reports and testimonies on Recovery Act funding.  These proactive efforts continue to yield very positive results. GAO’s Recovery Act efforts have helped ensure accountability, counter fraud, and promote transparency over where the money went and the results it achieved.  
    Although Dodaro stated "17 bimonthly review reports" have been issued, only 16 are listed on the GOA website as was stated above. In either case, despite the "bimonthly" claim, the reports have averaged around 90 days, or quarterly, not bimonthly, and the total is six or seven short of the 23 called for by the legislation.  Here is the relative text from the legislation spelling out the reporting responsibilities of the GAO.  There do not appear to be any caveats or exceptions to the bimonthly requirement:
Sec. 901. Government Accountability Office Reviews and Reports. (a) Reviews and Reports-
(1) IN GENERAL- The Comptroller General shall conduct bimonthly reviews and prepare reports on such reviews on the use by selected States and localities of funds made available in this Act. Such reports, along with any audits conducted by the Comptroller General of such funds, shall be posted on the Internet and linked to the website established under this Act by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.
    In a year when the agency has only issued two of six required reports, it is curious to say the least that the head of the GAO continued to refer to the Recovery Act reports as "bimonthly." This misstatement alone is cause for concern about the level of transparency at the government's largest watchdog agency.

    Although the GAO works for Congress, the Obama administration is widely recognized as having ownership of the Recovery Act. Though Congress bears some responsibility for being asleep at the switch, with the GAO's reporting in 2012 occurring at only one-third of the level Congress mandated for the trillion-dollar Recovery Act, the Obama administration's pledge to run the "most open and transparent administration in history" could certainly be called into question as well.

UPDATE: I received a response from Chuck Young, Managing Director of Public Affairs for the GAO in which he stated that the "Recovery Act requires bi-monthly reviews but does not require bi-monthly reporting."

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