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For One Federal Agency, Stimulus Transparency Has Its Limits

 This week, ProPublica, together with USA Today, reported that nearly half of all states have failed to apply for federal stimulus dollars set aside to help low-income families. However, our story lacked one important detail: A list of which states have applications pending and which states have so far chosen to avoid the program. The reason for that omission is a story in itself—one that underlines the fact that the Obama administration’s promise of greater transparency in government is easier made than kept.

The stimulus money in question is a $5 billion supplement to a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, introduced in 1997 to help families on public assistance. States can use the money to offset the cost of their increased TANF caseloads, to help pay for subsidized make-work programs or to offer one-time payments to families in need.

Economists applaud giving money to low-income families because they’re more likely to spend it than save it, which gets money into the economy quickly. But before the program can succeed, states must first apply for the money, which requires that they put up 20 percent of the cost.

The agency in charge of the program is the Administration for Children and Families, or ACF, in the Department of Health and Human Services. On Aug. 21, at the outset of our reporting, we talked to Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of the ACF’s Office of Public Affairs, who gave us basic information about how TANF works. Once we realized that many states weren’t applying for the money, we called Wolfe again and left messages asking for more details, including a state-by-state breakdown of which states were using the money. Our plan was to create a map so readers could quickly determine whether their states had applied for this money.

Wolfe gave us the names of the states whose applications had been approved and told us how much money they had asked for. But he refused to name those whose applications were still being processed.

“The state names and amounts fall under pre-decisional information,” he said in an e-mail. “It is a longstanding policy that all applications are confidential until acted upon.”

However, that policy is hardly uniform across the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education has published a list of which states applied for the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, and for how much. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which together with the Rural Utilities Service administers the $7.2 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, told us it’s getting ready to release the names of every group that applied for funds. So is the Federal Railroad Administration, which is handling the $8 billion High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program.

When we asked Wolfe why the TANF program was different, he would say via e-mail only that “pre-decisional confidentiality is ACF policy.”

That position—we won’t talk, because we won’t talk—seemed to fall short of the transparency goals set by the administration. So with our USA Today deadline fast approaching, on Sept. 1 we called and e-mailed Wolfe’s boss, Vicki Rivas-Vazquez, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs media, but got no response.

The next day, we called and e-mailed Rivas-Vazquez’s boss, Jenny Backus, the acting assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS. Backus responded by e-mail that same day, saying she would try to call “as soon as possible.” We never heard from her again.

As a last resort, our editor-in-chief, Paul Steiger, e-mailed White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, asking him to help unlock the information. Gibbs didn’t respond. And neither Backus nor Rivas-Vazquez replied to our most recent e-mails, seeking comment for this post.

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