Texas Watchdog federal stimulus reporting highlighted in Harvard study


Texas Watchdog figures prominently in a Harvard study that says the federal stimulus program could have done a better job helping the public track its $862 billion in spending.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the authors of the just-released study, Recovery Act Transparency, contend, did a relatively wonderful job of documenting the movement of the money from the federal to the local level.

States followed the lead of Recovery.gov, the sometimes troubled $27.7 million website, and jammed their websites full of data in the name of transparency.

The problem, the study points to time and again, was putting all that data in places where the public could find it, in forms that were understandable and offered some perspective into the success of the stimulus as a stimulator of the economy and a creator of jobs.

“In expanding the scope of fiscal transparency, policy-makers should pay special attention to the challenges faced by interest groups, individual citizens, and journalists in using data,” the study, headed by researcher Francisca Rojas, recommended. “Through consultation with user groups and others, government at all levels should develop transparency systems for public spending that are more accessible, actionable, and ultimately more valuable in the years to come.”

Researchers studying six states including Texas found the federal and state recovery websites largely failed to engage citizens. By far, the highest use of the sites was among state bureaucrats, making sure their reporting was reflected properly.

Because of the complexity of the data, its unevenness and lack of context, making sense of the stimulus was tough for journalists.

The study recounts the difficulty for Texas Watchdog, which published more than 100 stories about the stimulus and probed in particular the $326 million weatherization program managed by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

On page 42 of the study:

Mark Lisheron of Texas Watchdog focused his reporting on implementation of the state’s weatherization program, which expanded dramatically under the Recovery Act. In Texas alone, the Department of Housing and Community Affairs’ (DHCA) program grew from a typical yearly budget of $13 million to weatherize 3,500 to 4,000 homes to $327 million to weatherize 38,000 low-income homes in a two-year period.

Lisheron began reporting on the implementation of weatherization on a regular basis in late 2009, based on a tip that some contractors to DHCA were performing substandard weatherization projects. As he tells it, data from the comptroller’s Recovery Act website served as a first, partial view into his investigation:

“I never let the data tell the story all by itself. With each data drop, I would get a little glimpse of the whole picture. Then [I would] go back to the agencies and try to take it down as far as I could … [I] called regularly for public records requests from the Department of Housing and Community Affairs. They finally sent them to me on disk. (First, [they] made me go down and get them, boxes of files.) The government required 5-6 page forms to be filled out when [officials] would inspect weatherization jobs that had been done …Those reports are not available on any website, you had to ask. … Once every two months I’d ask for all inspections reports to see if there was any improvement.”

As Lisheron identified contractors rated as bad performers in DHCA’s weatherization inspection reports, the agency began to take money away from struggling contractors and shift it to groups that were doing a better job of weatherizing homes.

In his opinion, the effectiveness of Lisheron’s reporting was complemented by the federal government’s ongoing oversight and threat that money could be taken back for noncompliance with federal standards. By summer 2011, the head of DHCA had resigned after difficulties that included publicity about unspent rebuilding funds from Hurricane Ike and trouble managing the expanded weatherization portfolio.

The study also cites three of the weatherization stories, here, here and here.

Texas media made greater use of Recovery Act data than any of the other states. The study points to the posting of more than 400 stimulus stories on the state Comptroller’s website.

“The state’s archive of articles,” the study said, “did not include the extensive reporting done outside traditional newsrooms by an investigative journalist for Texas Watchdog.”

We take the grievous omission as a compliment, wondering if it might not have had something to do with our coverage of the Comptroller’s Energy Conservation Office and its distribution of $52 million in stimulus for questionable solar projects.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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