Connecting state and local government leaders
The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee is on the lookout for fraud and other issues with trillions in federal Covid aid. But the watchdog is also assembling a wealth of data on programs the money is going to.
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Public Finance Update - July 5, 2022
Welcome back to another edition of Route Fifty’s Public Finance Update! I’m Liz Farmer and this week I’m looking at the federal committee responsible for overseeing $5 trillion in pandemic spending. The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, or PRAC, is behind what is arguably the nation’s largest data analytics project and has worked directly with state and local governments since the early months of the pandemic. As always, send feedback and tips to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The PRAC was established under the 2020 pandemic relief law known as the CARES Act and is housed within the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. Its mission is deceptively simple: ensure that federal Covid aid goes where it's supposed to and that the money is spent effectively. But tracking trillions of dollars, including the $500 billion sent directly to state and local governments over the past two and a half years, is a herculean task.
Committee Chair Michael Horowitz said data reporting is one the most significant issues for those charged with ensuring the relief funding is spent appropriately. “So many other issues cascade off of that,” he said.
The committee is evaluating spending from more than 400 programs across more than 40 agencies and establishing several valuable databases for practitioners and other transparency stakeholders. This work has sometimes been complicated by lags in reporting from funding recipients. For example, it took months for the committee to receive the first data on small business loans made from relief funds—which meant that it took the better part of a year before PRAC’s inspectors general could start identifying fraud and inform the public about whether the loan programs were working as intended.
Last week, the PRAC launched a new dashboard tracking spending from the $350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, the primary state and local aid program created by the American Rescue Plan Act.
A number of data transparency groups have also taken it upon themselves to aggregate and analyze state and local pandemic spending data and outcomes.
The Southern Economic Advancement Project, for example, has created a database tracking pandemic spending by 172 cities in five states. Results for America has also aggregated data from state and local government recovery plan reports to track certain themes (like equity) in investments. But the PRAC’s work delivering the spending information to the public has not only helped these organizations do their work, it’s been critical to understanding how the pandemic is affecting state and local policy.
“It’s not just about putting numbers on a dashboard—that’s like ‘Open Data 1.0,’” said Zachary Markovits, vice president at Results for America, which has partnered with the committee. “This next phase, which I think PRAC seems to be understanding, is what are our users trying to get at here and are these programs working? And how we can use data to both understand transparency and…policy gains.”
Working With State and Local Auditors
The committee has also taken the unusual step of working directly with their state and local counterparts. Since the early days of the pandemic, the committee has met regularly with state and local auditors to share work. Because the majority of pandemic funding has been delivered to states and localities to administer, said Horowitz, it has been important for federal inspectors general to hear from them about potential issues.
“They’re probably going to see at earlier stages than us how these programs are affecting their communities,” he said. “That’s been very helpful for us to get that knowledge of where we should be going and who we should be talking to.”
In fact, the committee now has plans to visit six communities across the country, including Springfield, Massachusetts, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to hear directly from program users and policymakers.
A Focus on Data and Evidence
Perhaps the most lasting impact of the pandemic and PRAC will be the administration’s work to elevate data as a policy tool for state and local officials. At least, that’s what Horowitz and others hope.
With the state and local aid , many governments are required to report on data they used to support their program design and whether those programs produced the desired results. That push has led to a remarkable amount of experimentation—at least 40% of localities are now piloting new programs, according to Results for America. The data collection on those programs, paired with the evaluations of them, said Markovitz, means that “when these [recovery] dollars go away, we will have a whole new catalog of policy programs that worked.”
More broadly, PRAC last year launched the Pandemic Analytics Center of Excellence, which includes an analytics platform to help identify spending patterns and anomalies. The center builds upon best practices developed during the Great Recession by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board’s Recovery Operations Center. The Recovery Board built infrastructure and data analysis tools to track recovery spending but the board was allowed to dissolve after 2015.
Therefore when PRAC was created, it had to start from scratch in establishing an analytics platform to crunch the emergency spending data. Horowitz said he doesn’t want Congress to make that same mistake twice and he’s talking with members in the House and Senate about the importance of preserving the analytics center.
“There are going to be future earthquakes, hurricanes, fires and other natural disasters that will result in emergency funding,” he said. “Policymakers, when deciding what to do with future federal relief, will need this information to understand how these current programs worked. And if you don’t have the data, you can’t figure that out.”