(This post originally appeared on the States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery blog).
Despite the left-right consensus that government transparency is good, some new governors seem to disagree when it comes to the Recovery Act. In a little-noticed shift since the November elections, at least three states—Florida, Ohio and Kansas—have dramatically stripped down their official American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) websites.
While none of the original websites were great (they all ranked lower than 30th in our January 2010 report card, “Show Us the Stimulus”), they were goldmines compared to the current websites these states are offering up. Take a look at their current ARRA websites and compare them to those archived on the Way Back Machine. The differences are not subtle.
I recently spoke with officials in the Governor’s offices of all three states to try to get an explanation for why their ARRA websites have been downgraded, and asked state-based groups in Florida and Ohio how these changes will affect their work.
Under former Gov. Charlie Crist, Florida’s Recovery Act website categorized “state and local [stimulus] projects” by various issue areas, including “health care,” “education,” and “infrastructure.” Each category included sub-category pages that featured a description of the program and specific funding details. The Florida ARRA site also included a stimulus timeline, news updates, FAQs and, according to a March 2009 report by ProPublica, “a lot of downloadable documents.”
None of this information is available at Florida’s new Recovery Act website under Gov. Rick Scott. The revised website includes only a list of “Certifications Required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009” and links to these letters, in which the Governor assures that the state will use Recovery Act funds in compliance with the law.
Chris Land, Recovery Act coordinator for Gov. Scott, said that “it’s pretty standard procedure for a new administration to design their own website and [arrange] their policy priorities in a way that’s important to them, and that’s why the website was changed.” Land added that “[m]ost of that information is available on Recovery.gov,” and that even though “some of it isn’t,” the state has no plans to return to the old website or add any additional information to the current one.
Commenting on the changes, Leda M. Perez, Vice President for Health Initiatives at the Collins Center for Public Policy, noted that the original website had served as “a valued resource for our own website evaluating the federal stimulus program in Florida.” Perez, whose organization is devoted to monitoring and analyzing ARRA’s investments in Florida and engaging the public around the activities of its government, added: “Certainly, a continued commitment to open and transparent government is essential to the democratic process.”
“People want to know how the stimulus money has been used in our state, especially how it has created jobs,” said Joseph Phelan, communications director at Florida New Majority, a group that tracks the impact of stimulus spending on Black and Latino communities in Florida. “Communities of color which were hardest hit by the recession are particularly concerned with this question. But in order to understand the impact of these funds, we need access to information about programs and spending.”
Ohio’s former stimulus website overseen by then-Gov. Ted Strickland featured a “project location and info map” that allowed constituents to “track stimulus funds in your community,” analysis of reporting data by quarter, news updates, and documents describing the various ARRA programs in Ohio, how much had been spent on them and how many jobs they had created. The website also had a page titled, “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act at a Glance,” which was updated quarterly and provided a series of facts and figures summarizing the impact of the Recovery Act in Ohio.
Other than links to the federal ARRA website (Recovery.gov) and Ohio state agencies’ various ARRA websites, new Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s stimulus website only includes a list of certifications required by the Recovery Act. The links to these certifications are not currently operational.
A constituent aide in Gov. Kasich’s office said she’d look into why the Ohio ARRA website has been stripped down, check with officials in the Governor’s office about “the information that the state can offer that’s not on the federal website,” and ask the Governor’s IT department to fix the broken certification links. We also filed a media inquiry with the Governor’s office, but have yet to hear back.
“Ohio’s comprehensive tracking of Recovery Act funding facilitated analysis of outcomes and impact,” said Wendy Patton of Policy Matters Ohio, which is finishing the last of seven reports on the impact of the federal stimulus in Ohio. “The projects are still being completed, but under the Kasich administration, citizens’ oversight is eliminated. Transparency in government serves an important role in strengthening democracy. We are very disappointed that a valuable tool has been dismantled.”
Under former Gov. Mark Parkinson, the Kansas ARRA website featured pages for “education,” “energy,” “health and human services,” “housing & water,” “job training & relief for Kansans,” justice & public safety” and “transportation.” Each page included funding information as well as a description of certain programs and projects. The website also included a description of the purpose of the stimulus legislation, a timeline of key “milestones” relating to the implementation of the Recovery Act in Kansas and a list of “featured news” items.
The new ARRA website of Gov. Sam Brownback has a few pages that were also on the earlier website: the education page remains, as does a “help for Kansas citizens” page about various state programs and a link to the Recovery.gov page detailing stimulus projects in Kansas. The new site also has a brief FAQ section about the Recovery Act, a list of certifications and a link to the legislation. But the website no longer includes information about any of the other categories of stimulus funds or any information about specific programs or projects that aren’t related to education.
Gov. Brownback’s Press Secretary, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, said that the current website includes “what I’ve been told is required to be up there.” Jones-Sontag said there aren’t any plans to change the website, but that “If there’s something that’s missing that should be on there, we’d be happy to make sure it gets put on there.” However, she questioned “how many Kansans are actually accessing this page” and whether stimulus information is part of “the public discussion in Kansas.” According to Jones-Sontag, the Brownback administration is “not really promoting” the Recovery Act because it is trying to “get Kansas to live within its means.”