Keeping Tabs on the Stimulus Plan's Billions

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, April 9, 2009

It was hard to tell the nation is in deep recession during a breakfast meeting in the well-appointed -- make that opulent -- meeting room at the Willard Hotel.

Perhaps ironically, the topic of the session was the slump, or more specifically, how the Government Accountability Office is carrying out its oversight of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Members of the Association of Government Accountants met over a fancy egg-and-spinach dish to hear Gene L. Dodaro, the acting comptroller general, discuss what the GAO is doing to promote accountability and transparency in the implementation of the mammoth spending program.

Frequently called the stimulus package, the act's $787 billion are supposed to lead us out of our economic morass. GAO, among others, has been charged with its oversight.

To do that, GAO is taking a tiny sliver of the funding, $25 million, to boost its staff with 100 economists, auditors, lawyers and others who can track where the billions go. But that funding isn't going to last long.

"The $25 million is available to us only through September 2010. So, that's a short period of time," Dodaro said, after the tuxedo-clad wait staff served coffee. "We can't bring people on board that are going to be permanent, because we won't have the funding to sustain them."

But the recovery program will go on longer than the remaining 17 months the $25 million will be available. Dodaro's not worried about that. "We'll have enough people to follow the money through the process," he said.

One way those people will follow the money is through an ongoing analysis of what 16 states do with Recovery Act funds. The states -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas -- have about two-thirds of the U.S. population and two-thirds of the intergovernmental stimulus grants, according to Dodaro. GAO also will study how certain localities, including the District, spend the money.

The office is the legislature's investigative arm and prides itself on being the "congressional watchdog." It has a reputation for utilizing an effective hiring strategy that its sister agencies in the executive branch might want to emulate.

The watchdog's stimulus-related hires will be broken into three groups, Dodaro said. One-third will be drawn from retired GAO employees who can be lured back into the workforce. They'll be able to hit the ground running, which is important because this recession isn't waiting for the government to get up to speed. Another third will be term appointees. When they are hired, they'll know it's only a temporary gig. The final third will be entry-level workers who will be absorbed into the GAO staff after the $25 million is gone.

If the sparkling light from the Willard's chandeliers made it hard to see the reality of the recession, Dodaro's statistics about the number of job applications GAO has received was one indication of life outside the draped windows. Already, the number of applications the agency has received for the term positions is 10 times the number of slots available.

When it comes to employing people, the GAO has something going for it that has eluded many federal agencies -- a competent hiring process.

"They do a great job. They definitely are a model agency in that respect," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a good-government group that examines federal employment issues.

A key difference Stier sees between GAO and other agencies is the accountability office matches rhetoric about people being the most important asset with deeds. Hiring isn't just a job for the GAO's human resources staff; it's also for the top leadership, he said.

"Both Gene and Dave use their own personal time on talent acquisition and talent development," Stier said.

Dave is David M. Walker, who was comptroller general for a decade until last year. "We had a very aggressive and very professional recruitment effort," said Walker, who now is president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The foundation is so serious about its mission of increasing "public awareness of the nature and urgency of key economic challenges threatening America's future" that its Web site lets viewers know its individual share of the national debt -- $184,000.

Walker said GAO assigns agency executives to develop relationships with people on university campuses to facilitate recruiting of college students.

"We make hiring a top priority," Walker said in a telephone interview. "We were way ahead of most agencies in the federal government."

More information about GAO's role in monitoring the stimulus program can be found at

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