As the implications of the federal economic stimulus begin to take shape, learning organizations are presented with significant short-term and long-term opportunities.
Last month, the U.S. Congress passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus package, to support the flagging U.S. economy. The money set aside for appropriation during the 21-month period authorized by the act presents significant opportunity for learning leaders across all sectors, said Carol Willett, chief learning officer for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
“Learning as an industry is more used to being on a diet than being given 21 months to develop muscle, imagination and flexibility,” she said. “Stimulus money may provide federal, private and nonprofits a unique opportunity to invest in building long-term capacity, rather than focusing exclusively on day-to-day survival.”
Willett heads up the learning organization at GAO, an independent, nonpartisan agency authorized by Congress to keep tabs on federal expenditures. As CLO of the watchdog on federal spending, she is in a unique position to see the implications of increased federal spending within her own organization, but also across the broader government landscape.
The opportunities arising from stimulus money vary based on the nature and mission of an organization, she said.
“Nonprofits are going to find far more grant money available than at any time in the past decade,” she said. “They can use this to develop new relationships, to create common cause with others pursuing similar purposes and to make themselves better known among the constituents they serve.”
Willett said nonprofits will succeed best under the stimulus package through collaboration with other nonprofit groups.
“In the past, it was all a little cutthroat because it was a zero-sum game in competing for funds. But under the stimulus package, I see an opportunity for nonprofits who can broaden their network of relationships.”
In the private sector, there is significant opportunity for companies to bid on government contracts, Willett said. Federal Web sites, such as FedBizOpps and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, are posting more requests for bids than she recalls seeing in recent memory.
“A lot of [companies] have shied away, especially small private companies, from even attempting to go for government contracts because the process has been relatively excruciating.”
The heavy flow of stimulus money during the 21-month period authorized by the act may help streamline that process.
“While the government contracting process is complex, contracting officers are being challenged to try to balance expediency and accountability,” Willett said.
“I see agencies looking pretty hard, pretty fast, at their procedures, and while they certainly don’t want to contravene any procurement laws, they’re going to be looking wherever possible at how to streamline the process.”
Where the stimulus will have perhaps the most broad-reaching impact is in the federal government, where agencies like the GAO will have to ramp up their capacity rapidly, while also maintaining a high standard of accountability.
“Government agencies are having to develop more contacts, relationships and networks with state and local institutions in order to allocate grant money according to the terms of the act,” Willett said. “Those relationships demand a kind of ‘radical collaboration ethic’ that you don’t usually see. In a very real sense, we are mutually dependent on each other for success. We’re no longer just autonomous actors with only our own appropriated budget to worry about.”
Traditionally, federal, state and local agencies each operated separately, but the transparency and accountability required by the stimulus act require them to work together more closely.
“All those levels have to talk to each other in order for this to work,” said Willett. “We’re not just collaborating on one thing right now as a transaction. Instead, [we are] incentivizing people to create more durable relationships based on their perception of common ground and interdependence.”
While the short-term challenges facing the economy are significant, there is significant opportunity to invest for future growth as part of the stimulus.
“This is about the best time in the whole wide world to be a purveyor of a learning management system or a learning content management system,” Willett said. “The reason why I say that is, this is a rare opportunity to invest in infrastructure that’s going to continue to provide dividends and the ability to reach more people more quickly, even after the stimulus package money runs out.
“This is like seed corn. It is such a rare opportunity to really do infrastructure investment that then makes all the more possible e-learning delivery, Web-based delivery, podcast — ways to reach people that go way beyond what you can achieve via instructor-led.”Filed under: Technology