Stimulating The Conflicts of Interest?

The debate over the efficacy of the Obama administration's economic stimulus program continues to rage.


So we decided to ask someone who has been turning over every pebble on the stimulus road to see not only who got what, but the opportunities the stimulus offered to the private sector. And he should know a thing or two about this—his company's business is to know everything and anything about the stimulus. Michael Balsam is the Chief Strategy Officer of Onvia, which tracks Recovery Act-funded projects.

LL: You have followed every local, state & federal stimulus dollar. Has the stimulus worked?

MB: It depends on the metrics you want to apply. The White House mis-set expectations from the outset with an immeasurable goal of 3.5 million jobs. It was overly optimistic on how quickly the money could be spent. Just this week the President said he erred in using the term 'shovel ready,' and that's true — you can't spend that much money that quickly. And many of the private sector jobs we tracked were transient — such as for quick road repairs.

LL: What were the biggest areas of waste?

MB: Look at return on investment in two key areas:

1) State and local budgets absolutely needed an infusion of cash to avert a domino effect-type collapse in services like education and public safety. But now the stimulus money has now been spent and revenues are nowhere near replacement levels.

So what’s next? Onvia’s research shows a 25% year over year increase in outsourcing and privatization of government services.

2) The stimulus favored short-lived projects in lieu of larger capital expenditures. The short-term didn’t last long and now we’ve pushed critical infrastructure investments such as high speed rail further into the future.

LL: Was all the money spent?

MB: About two thirds or $200 billion of the money intended for Main Street — disbursed in the form of government contracts to private sector companies that hire private sector workers —has been allotted to specific projects or has actually been spent. We still expect additional private sector job support from stimulus funds. The rest is still working its way through the system and will eventually fund some of the longer term strategic initiatives.

LL: How much money went to state and local government bonuses (if any)?

MB: I don’t have any insight into bonuses but there have been stimulus dollars spent on salary increases within certain segments like education.

LL: Were any long-term jobs truly created?

MB: Not many to date, but the prospect is there for some longer-term gains in the private sector. Projects such as high speed rail will unfold over several years, so right now there are a few jobs in design and engineering.

And, in later years as those projects break ground, workers will be hired for long periods of construction. However, much of the funding went to save teacher jobs for a couple of years or fill potholes, and that money is gone with no replacement funds in sight.

LL: One of the biggest complaints right now is the lack of transparency. How transparent is government spending?

MB: I think transparency stands to be one the legacy success stories from the ARRA. Although the recipient self-reporting has not met anyone's expectations and the math around job creation is questionable, there is now an expectation of transparency at all levels. This will continue to gain momentum. We worked on some of the transparency components of the ARRA legislation and there was definitely pushback on requiring too granular a view.

LL: What is needed to create more transparency?

MB: The general consensus that we need a common way to measure the impact of investments, across all levels of government. Today, there is limited opportunity to inform strategic planning at all levels because the required data is not standardized nor shared.

LL: Did you find potential conflicts of interest with the use of private sector contractors and government relationships?

MB: This turned out to be somewhat self-fulfilling. With the directives to spend money quickly, the most expedient method was to use contracting vehicles already in place and many of those contracts are held by larger companies. This somewhat defeated the intent to engage new and smaller entrants into the government contracting marketplace.

LL: Which states are the winners in the stimulus allocation?

MB: Onvia measures winners based on how much stimulus money each particular state attracted per capita, and how quickly they were able to get it to Main Street. The states with the best records were Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, and New Hampshire. Alaska did the best combined job of attracting and awarding Recovery Act project funds — receiving $2,482 per capita.

LL: Which states were the losers?

MB: Virginia placed at the bottom of this category, being among those states to attract the fewest project funds per capita and among the slowest to spend it. Others in this category include Ohio, Georgia, Missouri, and Nevada.

Michigan, where unemployment was highest at 14.3% also fell short. The state attracted $821 project dollars per capita — and just 14% of those projects were actually awarded to contractors.

LL: What industries were the biggest gainers of the stimulus injection?

MB: Several industries have been direct beneficiaries including heavy machinery manufacturers such as Caterpillar and providers of energy efficient products such as General Electric .

LL: The stimulus of these industries kick off productivity and job creation or did it fall off a cliff after the money was spent?

MB: These industries are always balancing the short and long term, public sector and private sector revenues. For some of these larger firms, turmoil in the US has been offset by recovery and growth in other countries.

LL: Should there be a second stimulus?

MB: There's no doubt the first stimulus is nearly exhausted, so the programs and jobs that were sustained by those funds are threatened. There should probably be additional significant investments but it should be far more strategic than the first. It should be focused on getting businesses back to health, as well as on long-term investments like heavy infrastructure (not filling potholes) that are needed to secure America's global competitiveness in the 21st century.

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A Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, and author of "Thriving in the New Economy:Lessons from Today's Top Business Minds."