Follow the money: States scramble to track federal stimulus bucks

State IT shops are hustling to meet federal rules for tracking every penny of the $787 billion economic stimulus package.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, especially for IT.

Go to the state of Iowa's Web site, and you can see that of the $2.5 billion in federal economic stimulus money earmarked for the state under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), $553 million has already been spent on health, education, infrastructure and other programs designed to create jobs and jump-start the local economy.

Drill a bit deeper into the data and you can pull up the exact amounts spent on weatherization training and technical programs, rental assistance programs and hundreds of other individual projects.

Iowa CIO John Gillespie figures his IT organization has devoted about 800 man-hours so far to making that data available to the state's citizenry. "We actually had to build the application to give [different state agencies and programs] a way to submit data to us," he says.

But the far bigger challenge, Gillespie says, has been building the business rules and defining internal processes to comply with federal reporting requirements, which have changed or been updated several times since the stimulus package was first announced in February. States are required to file quarterly reports that fully account for every tax dollar spent.

Just as the $787 billion ARRA is unprecedented, so are the reporting demands it's making on state CIOs and IT organizations, which are scrambling to whip up new processes and tools to accurately track and account for their states' shares of the stimulus pie. The process has been complicated by a variety of factors, including exceedingly tight deadlines and complex and changing federal reporting guidelines.

Another big problem is the lack of a central accounting system in most states, which have had to first devise ways of extracting and aggregating data from multiple systems across hundreds of agencies before rolling it up to report it to the federal government.

Like so many of the energy and construction projects launched with stimulus dollars, tracking and reporting systems remain works in progress.

In Missouri, one of a handful of states to have a central accounting system used across all state agencies, funding and budgeting data is relatively easy to access. What remains difficult to grasp, however, is precisely what the federal government wants to know, says CIO Bill Bryan.

Two data points the feds want to track are job creation and retention under the economic stimulus program. "But the definition and requirements for how to count jobs is quite a challenge to understand," according to Marilyn Gerard-Hartman, director of enterprise applications for Missouri.

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