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.

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For example, if the state awards a highway infrastructure project to a contractor who in turn hires a subcontractor, who in turn hires other subcontractors, "how far down the chain is the state responsible for tracking? And do you only count it as a job created if the job wouldn't have existed without the ARRA funding?"

Generally, "it hasn't been clear what the requirements are until fairly late in the game," adds Bryan.

Meanwhile, fulfilling the requirements to the letter of the federal law is critical, Bryan notes. "If you don't comply, you could get thrown under the bus and not get any further funding."

"One of the biggest challenges is just the speed at which we had to get things done," says Iowa's Gillespie. "The rules for the most part didn't get finalized literally until weeks -- not months -- ago. Just keeping up has been the biggest challenge."

Rather than licensing commercial stimulus-tracking tools, Gillespie's team internally developed a tracking and reporting system "using tools already familiar to financial folks who have all the data in Excel spreadsheets," he explains. The data is imported into a database, where it is aggregated, extracted and converted to an XML-formatted report and submitted online to the federal government.

First things first

But before IT could build the tracking system, "we actually had to build a Web-based application to give people a way to submit data to us," Gillespie explains.

All of this was done in a matter of weeks by a small team comprising a designer-architect, a programmer and a project manager who is the chief liaison between IT and the state's stimulus office. The team already had some experience from working on the state's recovery Web site, which Gillespie says has "been kind of an iterative process that has been going on since the first recovery money came out."

He chalks up the speedy rate of progress on both projects to what he describes as healthy competition among states to have good reporting and great Web sites. "We wanted to be better than everybody else," he says.

But given the fierce push to quickly distribute ARRA funds and get new projects up and running, traditional IT project management practices, such as having a comprehensive set of user requirements, have in some cases gone out the window.

In Missouri, for example, a team was in the midst of implementing Microsoft Corp.'s Stimulus360 software for tracking funding and projects when the feds issued a change in data models for reporting.

"We had to move forward with plans and put things in place even though you knew [more] changes were coming," says Gerard-Hartman.

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