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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Like a start-up

At the newly formed Massachusetts Recovery and Reinvestment Office, Deputy Director Ramesh Advani likens the fast pace and deadline-driven atmosphere and culture to the environment of a start-up company.

"When you're doing something for the first time, you deal with systems issues, people issues, deadline issues, and you come across something new every day," he says. Tracking and reporting how many jobs are created with ARRA funds is a prime example. Meeting the first federal reporting deadline of Oct. 10 required some on-the-fly tactics.

"For the first round of reporting, what we have done is develop some manual templates, which we issued out to state agencies. Each agency must use the same template and also pass it on to subrecipients and vendors. That data will then be gathered and uploaded into a recently launched central database, then uploaded through XML to the federal system," he explains.

But this is only for the first round of reporting, Advani emphasizes. For the long term, the state is developing an automated data-gathering and -analysis system that includes Oracle Corp. business intelligence tools, data marts and data warehousing.

"We're trying not to make this a short-term solution, because ultimately we want to upgrade how we do grants management and our budgets across the board. We want to make sure we can use the same tools and reporting database beyond ARRA," Advani says.

ARRA's tight timeline and strict reporting deadlines have already driven some key process improvements in the state. For example, funding for ARRA transportation and highway projects had a 120-day "use it or lose it" deadline. But it typically took the state between 100 and 300 days to advertise projects and solicit bids from contractors. "We ended up drilling down into the system to get it down to a 40-day process, which is something we're proud about," Advani says.

Another long-term improvement is the creation of the program office itself. Going forward, the office will oversee all activities involving grants reporting, monitoring and compliance. The goal is to increase overall information transparency "beyond what's expected for federal reporting," says Advani.

Maine CIO Dick Thompson says he's already been directed by a legislative committee to ensure that IT work done to meet ARRA reporting requirements is also used to increase information transparency statewide. Before ARRA, for example, the state didn't provide electronic versions of contracts on its Web site -- which is a requirement under ARRA. "Now, we'll take that technology and process new contracts through the same system so we can provide broader information on all contracts that have been awarded," he says.

The result of ARRA reporting, CIOs agree, is a lot like the road signs popping up that say: "Temporary Inconvenience, Permanent Improvement."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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