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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Recovery Stats Get Rougher

We reported yesterday that the federal government’s Recovery.gov Web site, which purports to track jobs created or saved with stimulus money, was citing new jobs in nonexistent congressional districts. Today a new report from the Government Accountability Office brings news that phantom districts aren’t the only problem.

GAO found almost 4,000 reports that showed jobs created or saved but no money received or expended. Those reports represented more than 50,000 jobs. Recovery.gov’s total job count is 640,329.

GAO found other inconsistencies as well. More than 9,000 reports included large expenditures but showed no jobs created or retained, GAO found. Also, recipients used different and inconsistent interpretations of the "full-time equivalent" unit for reporting jobs.

To be fair, those errors came from a relatively small proportion of the more than 100,000 stimulus money recipients who reported. And GAO reported no evidence of deliberate deception, saying that the recipients it contacted "appear to have made good faith efforts to ensure complete and accurate reporting." But still, GAO described the issues as "significant."

Indeed, even the government watchdog whom the Obama administration put in charge of monitoring stimulus spending said today that the White House had been too quick to take credit for saving or creating 640,000 jobs. Earl Devaney admitted to members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that there were too many errors in the reporting to know the true number of jobs. Devaney is head of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board.

In a conference call to reporters, Ed Deseve, senior adviser to the president for Recovery Act implementation, offered an explanation for some of the errors. He said that a recipient of a grant may have the money in hand but may not have yet hired people to do that job. And in other cases where no money had been received but jobs were reported, the recipient could be a school district, for instance, that told teachers they won’t be losing their jobs based on the fact that funding had been approved — but not yet sent out. Deseve called Recovery.gov’s numbers "a good representation of what’s going on" and said that he believed the errors affected "less than 5 percent of the overall data."

Footnote: New evidence surfaced to indicate that the "phantom district" problem was even worse than at first reported. A writer on Examiner.com did an informal survey of the site, and found reports from nonexistent districts in "every single state." Deseve said that the congressional district issue had been fixed. (Instead of listing phony districts for states, the site now includes an "unassigned congressional district" category.)