CARES Act Funds: Tracking & Transparency

November 30, 2020 by Meredith Trimble

CARES Act Funds: Tracking & Transparency

As CARES Act funding rolled out, local governments across the country invested in technology that facilitated remote operations and enhanced the efficiency, streamlining, and responsiveness of government services. A new resource, A Local Government Leaders’ Playbook for the CARES Act, includes firsthand accounts from dozens of interviews focusing on the scalability of these successful fund uses.

The interviews in the playbook along with data from national associations indicate CARES Act money was well spent by local governments with overwhelmingly positive results. Local leaders showed remarkable resiliency and agility in responding to opportunities for ingenuity provided by CARES Act dollars, particularly in leveraging technology. Marc Ott, executive director of ICMA, noted in the playbook, “The bottom line is that city managers and other officials are doing what they have to do to serve the needs of their residents. That’s our job and our duty. Every day.”

Following are some insights from the playbook and accompanying webinar around fund tracking, civic engagement, and transparency.

Fund Tracking

Nearly all large organizations serving local government conducted some type of analysis around CARES Act funding. ICMA surveyed its members in July and found that more than 70% had used funds for public health expenses such as personal protective equipment, compliance with public health measures such as telework, paid family leave and distance learning, and for payroll expenses for key personnel.

NLC created an extensive Local Action Tracker, detailing policy responses by cities using CARES dollars and/or their own. NACo has an extensive online list of examples of how counties are using CARES Act funds, grouped into categories including nonprofit support, small-business support, housing/rental assistance, and economic aid and workforce development. GFOA did a survey related to the CARES Act that found the largest category of spending was on public health and on compliance with guidelines around remote work and distance learning.

Cities and counties themselves are going above and beyond to share with their constituencies exactly how relief funds are being used. Open data dashboards allow everyone from decision-makers to academics to the press to drill down into the specifics around receipt and expenditure of relief dollars. The enhanced transparency also serves as a measure of accountability in showing the public exactly where federal funds have gone.

In Ramsey County, Minnesota, Open Data Portal Coordinator Kristine Grill leveraged her existing open expenditure portal and created a new filtered view for accurate reporting of the county’s COVID-19 spend. The resulting dashboard provides a summary of the revenues, expenditures, and contracts related to COVID-19. Information includes state and federal funds received, as well as sections answering, “How much have we spent?” “What did we spend it on?” and “Who spent it?” Other dashboards show money spent on staffing in response to COVID-19, including department and type of pay.

When the pandemic first hit, Pierce County, Washington, repurposed its progress on a new budget dashboard and consolidated numerous datasets from the finance, health, emergency management, and economic development departments into one centralized location. The dashboard includes charts, data visualizations, and source data for funding allocations, funding expenditures, funding outcomes, grant funding, and economic indicators.

Civic Engagement and Transparency

As social distancing measures continue, so to do governments’ need for enhanced community connections. Prior to COVID-19 and the accompanying disruption, value existed in connecting to the latest city news, reporting neighborhood code compliance issues, or learning about community events. The pandemic brought a new urgency to sharing reliable information with the public. From providing community-level COVID-19 case statistics to sharing business statuses and public health rules, we now have to share information as swiftly as it changes, and across multiple channels.

Kerrville, Texas, used a civic engagement mobile app to give residents localized COVID-19 information via one easy button. Addison, Illinois, used the same app to support local restaurants through a directory showing real-time curbside pick-up and takeout options.

New social and political concerns have driven an increased demand from residents for localized information and news. Residents are consuming government information from push notifications, SMS messages, emails, or opting into news alerts in interest areas from council meetings to parks and recreation. Bulloch County, Georgia, for example, uses mobile app push notifications to reach people who aren’t sitting at a computer or accessing the website. Budget hearings that used to have just a few usual suspects in attendance now have thousands attending virtually.

Transparency is in play here, too, as robust COVID-19 open data dashboards get credible, accurate information to the public allowing individuals to act in ways to help slow the spread of the virus. Pierce County, Washington’s online dashboard uses interactive charts and graphs to report to the council and public on 192 COVID-related measures. Buffalo, New York, has a similar dashboard that functions as a one-stop shop for COVID-19 information including case statistics, mental health information, support for older residents, employment assistance, and volunteer and safe cultural opportunities.

Jurisdictions maintaining these connections will benefit from more educated, engaged constituents and a stronger community fabric even after the pandemic fades.

These and other themes are explored in more depth in the playbook and webinar, along with scalable solutions – “the plays” – which can be tailored to any jurisdiction navigating CARES Act funds.

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