No doubt the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will create many new jobs, put many desperate people to work, and lift many struggling families out of poverty. The question is, “Will the money be used efficiently to benefit the most people possible and increase the capability of people to remain employed after the economy turns around?” Or is ARRA simply a jumpstart to the economy with no power to help individuals, families, and businesses achieve long term sustainability.

ASTD estimates that over five billion of the $787 billion appropriated under ARRA will be used for training, including $4.2 billion for Department of Labor, $100 million for Department of Energy, $3 million for Government Services Administration, $610 million for Department of Health and Human Services, and $20 million for Department of Transportation. According to an analysis by the New York Times, when education is included, a total of $129 billion will go for programs that help people develop new skills and capabilities. We can't afford to spend that much money on training and education without getting a substantial return.

In President Obama’s 2010 budget he has emphasized holding programs accountable for performance. Susan Kistler, Executive Director of the American Evaluation Association has compiled a list of what the budget says about evaluation. It appears that Obama administration is trying to eliminate waste, stop funding programs that don’t achieve goals, create performance targets for new programs, and evaluate new initiatives to see what works. He has appointed a Chief Performance Officer to oversee and lead this emphasis on performance and a Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board will be charged, in part, with eliminating fraud, waste, and abuse.

I applaud this emphasis on transparency and accountability. Most states have already created a Web site where information is posted about how the money is being spent and what citizens can do to have access to funds. Although transparency is required by the legislation, some states are going to extraordinary lengths to be open about how their stimulus money is being used.

What I fear, though, is that transparency is becoming a proxy indicator for performance. I agree that every citizen should know how much money is being spent, who the money is being spent on, how many people are participating in the various training and education programs, and if agencies are fulfilling their funding guidelines. That’s transparency. However, transparency doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about results and what can be done to improve performance. A similar concern has been raised by Green For All and PolicyLink in their publication: Bringing Home the Green Recovery: A User’s Guide to the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In that document they say:

The challenge...is the political and economic urgency to spend Recovery Act funds quickly in order to put large numbers of people back to work. This poses a danger in three ways: that money will be spent poorly; that funding will go predominantly to projects which only reinforce the pollution-based economy’s status quo (with low-income people and communities of color at the smokestack end); and that jobs will only go to workers with the skills and connections necessary to get those jobs quickly, thereby reinforcing racial and economic inequity.

Another danger posed by the legislation is not being able to achieve results valued by stakeholders. Knowing output (amount of money spent, number of people served, etc.) is good, but we won’t know if any of these newly funded training and education programs are worth the investment unless we also measure outcomes (worker learning, sustainability of businesses, local economic impact, etc.).

Is anybody measuring and holding organizations accountable for ARRA results? If you know examples of this please write about them in the comments to this blog.

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