GAO finds fault with stimulus jobs data but touts transparency

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

Government auditors raised doubts Thursday about the number of jobs created or saved by the economic stimulus program, but they also said that mistakes reported in recent weeks signal the benefits of government transparency.

Roughly 10 percent of the recipients of stimulus dollars failed to submit quarterly reports last month, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday.

"I think missing reports may drive the job numbers up, and I think there are enough inaccuracies in here to drive the numbers down," said Earl E. Devaney, who oversees, the government's stimulus-tracking Web site. The Obama administration reported last month that the stimulus has created or saved about 640,000 jobs thus far.

Some recipients' failure to report spending data last month "is distressing and must be addressed," Devaney said, adding that Congress should penalize recipients who fail to report.

The doubts expressed by Devaney and acting GAO Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro at Thursday's House oversight committee hearing lend nonpartisan credence to general concerns about stimulus data. Devaney, who assumed his position in the spring, has repeatedly cautioned government officials at all levels that early data would probably contain errors. But some of those mistakes aren't necessarily a bad thing, he said.

"In reality, this data should serve in the long run as evidence of what transparency can achieve," he said. "In the past, this data would have been scrubbed from top to bottom before its release. The agencies would never have released the information until it was near-perfect."

Republicans attacked the jobs figures, referring to the data as "propaganda" and "garbage," and called the entire stimulus reporting process "disgusting."

"The administration continues to misread the economy, misunderstand the nature of economic growth, mislead the American people with faulty jobs claims and miss the steps this country needs to take to get our economy back on track," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

The Obama administration has struggled to clearly define stimulus job creation because -- as Devaney and Dodaro noted -- it is difficult to know what role the funding played.

"This has never been done before," White House stimulus adviser Ed DeSeve said after the hearing. "You can't name another government program that has done this."

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