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Smart Grid Investment Grant Spending Often Obscured Despite Promise of Transparency
Smart Grid Today discovers a broken system, highly flawed website intended to show where taxpayer dollars are going
Recovery.gov is “the US government’s official website that provides easy access to data related to Recovery Act spending and allows for the reporting of potential fraud, waste and abuse,” the site claims on its opening page. Included among the $275 billion in ARRA funding is $3.5 billion dedicated to the SGIG program. That program gave out money through DOE, starting in 2009.
Smart Grid Today discovered the site’s issues when researching an exclusive series of stories updating readers on the progress of the 99 SGIG-backed projects. In some cases, Smart Grid Today has been able to use Recovery.gov to successfully relay information about dollars spent and vendors chosen. DOE made 100 grants, but one awardee backed out.
“The goal of Recovery.gov was quite virtuous: putting a lot of information online so people could see where the money was going,” Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, told Smart Grid Today recently in an exclusive interview. “That’
TRANSPARENCY BOARD DEFENDS SITE
The federal Recovery Accountability & Transparency Board vigorously defended the site.
“People basically think it’s pretty easy” to use, Ed Pound, a board spokesperson, told Smart Grid Today last week. “We present the information we’re supposed to present, as required by law.” If consumers have a hard time understanding it, he added, “the place to go for guidance is OMB [Office of Management and Budget]” – a separate site, not linked to from Recovery.gov, where documents written with all the clarity and grace of the Internal Revenue Code set out grantees’ reporting requirements.
OMB does offer some guidance in its “Clarification of M-10-08 Guidance (Dec 18, 2009).” It states, “For payments of $25,000 or more, include payments made to the vendor for the current and past quarters with the payment amount in the vendor tab.” It seems clear from our reporting either that some grantees have not read or followed this guidance or that they have not understood it.
Smart Grid Today will this summer publish an exclusive industry report updating SGIG spending and project progress.
“The US government is not only derelict in its duty to keep taxpayers informed about the use of public funds to support power grid modernization but also is continuing to demonstrate carelessness that will hinder grid upgrades in the US,” Smart Grid Today Editor Brett Brune said.
“This is the third SGIG debacle on which we have reported: In early 2010, Smart Grid Today published a dozen stories about the federal government sorting out whether SGIG awards were federally taxable income -- months after the grants were awarded; and in two months ago, Smart Grid Today published articles that brought to light vendor-selection data that Reliant Energy had been hiding from public view -- data the firm said it was withholding with DOE’s approval. Our SGIG progress update this summer will enable more informed -- and therefore efficient and intelligent -- smart grid development planning.”
PROBLEMS ARE MANY
Among other issues, Recovery.gov:
Omits all spending data on some projects that it states have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so site visitors get no clue where the money went.
Sometimes presents data in a way that makes it impossible to tell how much a grantee spent on any given vendor in any given quarter. Because apparent duplicate entries appear in successive quarters, the total amount spent can only be guessed at.
Pound, a DOE grant supervisor and grantees gave conflicting explanations of the proper procedures for reporting quarterly vendor payments.
Does not delete zero-amount spending reports from grantees’ quarterly summaries, causing distraction.
Presents multiple awards to the vendor for the same service or product in different amounts during a single quarter, rather than adding them and presenting them as a single expense.
Because of these specific issues, gaining an accurate spending picture for a grant requires locating and contacting DOE, the grantee or both. Neither DOE nor the grantees are readily accessible or oriented to, skilled at or responsible for aiding the public.
ISSUES DRAG ON FOR 2 YEARS
Eight quarters have passed since most SGIG grantees began feeding their data onto different sites using templates provided by the federal government.
Overseers are supposed to check the data in form and substance and to request clarifications if necessary before the data is presented in Recovery.gov.
Yet the errors and ambiguities continue.
No penalty is imposed on grantees that report data improperly, even repeatedly, a DOE technical project officer (TPO) in charge of several SGIGs told Smart Grid Today this month.
“I cannot go and make changes myself, and I have no power to make people do it correctly,” the TPO said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source felt frustrated about how confusing the reporting requirements and procedures were: “The situation is unfair to taxpayers. ... this much confusion about how the data should be reported and interpreted – it’s just wrong.”
Grantees may be unaware that they are submitting data improperly, that data they submitted properly is appearing in a garbled form, or both. “I had never seen the site” before Smart Grid Today contacted her this month, said Julienne Sugarek, process project manager for CenterPoint Energy Houston Electric, which won an SGIG. “It certainly would create questions” when identical data appears in successive quarters, she acknowledged.
QUARTERLY PAYMENTS UNCLEAR
The biggest problem with Recovery.gov is that it leaves unclear how much money each grantee paid to each vendor each quarter. Data is viewable by quarter, and each quarter’s “vendor transactions”
But some SGIG winners provide cumulative data. That is, the payments listed in any one quarter include all payments from all prior quarters as well. And that is the intention, Recovery.gov’
But by no means do all SGIG recipients report cumulatively. Many list only the current quarter’s payments.
SOME NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP
As another example of the problems on Recovery.gov, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities’ (IAMU) report for the quarter ended March 31 reported six payments to vendors of greater than $25,000 each, for a total of $2,904 – a total that cannot mathematically be correct. Likewise, IAMU reported two payments to vendors of less than $25,000 each, totaling $2,904, which appears to be an error because it duplicates the number in the line item above it.
SOME SOLUTIONS EASY
Easy solutions exist for some of these problems.
If every payment over $25,000 to a vendor carried a unique serial number, suspected duplicates could be detected. Directions to grantees written in clear, simple English could clarify their obligations. Consistent monitoring and rigorous enforcement of reporting requirements – with penalties – could produce better reports.
VP of Editorial, Modern Markets Intelligence
Editor, Smart Grid Today
Page Updated Last on: Jun 18, 2012