Recovery.gov Leaves Questions Unanswered About Errors in Stimulus Reporting
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Edward Pound, Communications Director of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, said he would answer our questions about errors we have found in the government’s website reporting as to where stimulus money has gone. That website, recovery.gov, was established to track the recipients and uses of the $787 billion appropriated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The recovery.gov website asks the question “Where is the money going?” Clicking on that tab takes users to a menu which, in turn, leads to state summaries showing the amounts of stimulus money going to congressional districts and zip codes in a state. As we have reported previously, and other journalists have also discovered, those summaries have reported $6.4 billion going to nonexistent Congressional districts and over $375 million going to nonexistent zip codes.
New Mexico Watchdog submitted several questions to the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. Those questions were submitted following criticism by Mr. Pound that we had not asked for their perspective on the false information reported on the recovery.gov website. In an e-mail he informed us that the Board was aware of the zip code errors and had taken steps to ensure those errors would not be repeated in the next report, due January 30, 2010.
The questions we submitted were:
1. Why were applications to catch incorrect or nonexistent Congressional districts and zip codes not in place from the beginning? What applications are being installed and how much did they cost to install?
2. If one wanted to calculate the average cost of a job created/saved in New Mexico on a statewide basis, would it be an appropriate calculate to divide the amount of stimulus funding reported going, so far, to New Mexico, by the number of jobs the recovery.gov site reports as having been created/save?
3. If one wanted to calculate the average cost of the jobs created in each zip code, would it be appropriate to simply divide the amount of money reported at recovery.gov going to each zip code by the number of jobs reported as being created/saved in that zip code?
4. Is there anyway to determine from the recovery.gov site the number of jobs created in New Mexico and each New Mexico zip code as opposed to the number of jobs saved?
We promised Mr. Pound we would print his response verbatim. Here it is:
“Suggest you consult local economists on the jobs questions. Here is my statement on the zip code issue:
“This is much ado about nothing. Frankly, it’s nonsense. An analysis of the zip codes listed on the Recovery.gov web site shows that around 450 zip code entries in 131,000 reports are erroneous. But because a recipient simply types in the wrong zip code does not mean that Recovery money is going to a phantom zip code or a non-existent location. In fact, Recovery money linked to these zip codes has been reported, and every one of those reports can be found by downloading the state files and conducting the most rudimentary research on the web site. This is simply human error. It is misleading to suggest that this money is missing or has been sent to mystery locations.
“The Recovery Board has already taken steps to ensure that this sort of error will not be possible in the next set of recipient reports that are currently being filed. As you can see from information on our web site, we have made changes that will not allow any recipient report to be filed if the zip code is wrong or if the congressional district listed by the recipient is in error. That information was posted on our web site weeks ago, as anyone genuinely interested in the facts could see.”
We followed up with a few more questions:
“Thank you, Ed. But if you knew the information on your website contained inaccurate information, why wasn’t it corrected? In using your site, one clicks on the tab “Where is the money going?” The site then purports to answer that question as to the amounts of money going to different congressional districts and zip codes. Yet the report shows money “going” to nonexistent zip codes. If recovery.gov was aware of that situation, as you state, why wasn’t it corrected in the data published on the site or why weren’t taxpayers alerted to errors in the data? I also [would] like to repeat my question, which wasn’t answered, as to why applications or procedures to prevent this problem were not in place from the beginning?”
Mr. Pound resonded: “You have my statement. Thanks. Ed.”
Thank you, Mr. Pound. But the fact remains that the answer to the question “Where is the money going?” does not receive an accurate answer at the website the President promise would “track every penny.” It still reports money going to zip codes that do not exist. This, in a website that received an $18 million upgrade a few months ago. We are told that all the money reported and accounted for is in there, somewhere, even though the numbers on the summary pages are incorrect. But how can we be certain based on the track record so far?
Clarification The $18 million upgrade may extend over time until 2014. According to ABC News the recovery.gov website received an upgrade this past year for $9.5 million. The upgrade, according to a report in Federal Computer Week, was supposed to “normalize, standardize and cleanse data.” In an e-mail from Edward Pound, he state’s that only $6 million has been spent to date on the upgrade. But his e-mail, sent in response to this post, still does not offer an explanation why the Recovery Transparency and Accountability Board has knowingly continued to post incorrect data on the recovery.gov website.