Recently the PRAC hosted a virtual panel discussion with panelists from local governments and organizations that track federal money to showcase examples of data dashboards and visualization tools that effectively display the use of pandemic funds in local communities. The panelists described their experiences collecting the data, challenges with reporting requirements, and recommendations for increasing transparency for the public.
State and local governments received unprecedented levels of federal funding through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) and the $350 billion State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) provided direct, flexible funding for COVID-19 response and recovery.
Before SLFRF data was released in May 2022, transparency into how recipients spent the money fell mainly on state and local governments and the approach varied widely by location. The panelists shared examples of successful strategies they used to inform the public on how pandemic relief dollars were spent in their communities. Here are some of the takeaways:
Transparency efforts need a clear strategy
For many jurisdictions, CRF money was distributed quickly before local governments had the chance to set up dashboards to track the spending. But with SLFRF, governments had more time—and experience—to strategize how to spend the funds and collect reporting information from recipients. Lisa Martinez-Templeton, the Chief Economist for the Denver Department of Finance explained that even before officials knew how much funding they would be getting, the city started meeting with agency heads about the overall goal for the money. Once the goals were set, they decided which data to collect and how to collect it.
Nicolas Diaz Amigo shared insights from his experience tracking SLFRF spending data as Chief Innovation & Data Officer for the City of Syracuse, New York. “The dashboard is not something you can come in and do after the fact. It is really the result of doing something right from the start.”
The SLFRF impacted government innovation, community engagement, and equity
The Department of the Treasury’s broad flexibility for how the money could be used allowed cities and towns to pilot new programs and modernize existing ones (see our data story on SLFRF pilot programs). These decisions were based on feedback from local citizens, which many cities and towns sought through public forums and online surveys to make sure the money was used effectively. Zachary Markovits, the Vice President and Local Practice Lead at Results for America, noted that about 40% of spending plans included pilot programs.
The SLFRF program guidance’s emphasis on equitable recovery is a positive element of the program, according to Maria Filippelli, the Data Director at the Southern Economic Advancement Project. “The equity in engagement…and implementation as a focus for the state and local funds is fantastic. And having federal programs continue to focus on this equity and reconciling longstanding systemic issues is really key to maximize the impact of federal programs.”
Future federal programs should improve transparency and reduce administrative burden
Despite having a positive impact on communities, panelists agreed that the program has some “pain points.” Julie Demuth, the Assistant Director of Budget & Performance for Pierce County, Washington, spoke of the administrative burden for recipients and subrecipients. “The quarterly expenditure reports and annual performance reports that we have to do are a substantial effort and they require manual data entry into the [reporting] portal.” She believes that improving the portal may reduce the resources that are needed to comply with reporting requirements.
Another recommendation, shared by Filippelli, was to improve “process transparency.” She described how a lot of data shows where funds are going without showing how programs are being implemented and whether they are meeting stated goals.