Wikipedia photoThe American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka, ARRA, aka the Recovery Act, aka the stimulus bill) doesn’t get any respect, in some ways deservedly. We ourselves have complained, since its inception one year ago, about its reliance on existing “business-as-usual” delivery systems, which thwarted any conversation about real reform and reinforced the approach of spreading money around instead of targeting investments. The administration’s one spatial directive of investing in so-called economically distressed areas only made a bad situation worse.

However, one thing the legislation has done--notwithstanding the critical conventional wisdom--is produce a substantial job impact, to the point that while it couldn’t prevent the nation’s unemployment surging to 9.7 percent as of last month it has nevertheless provided jobs for something like 2 million people who wouldn’t otherwise have them now. This morning, David Leonhardt at the New York Times has the basic story to this effect, and briskly runs through the outside econometric evaluations of the stimulus such as those from IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisors, and Moody’s Economy.com which all estimate that the package has added 1.6 million to 1.8 millions jobs to date and will generate as many as 2.5 million when all is said and done.

And yet, that’s only the job story. Even less recognized than the job yield of the stimulus package is the extent to which ARRA has served as a legitimate forum for program experimentation. Our report “Metro Potential in ARRA” told the story in some detail, but the fact is that amid the often ugly barge of business-as-usual programs delivered in rigid program silos lay numerous innovative programs that pointed to a new way for the federal government to act as it related to its state, local, and metropolitan partners.

These efforts, on high-speed rail, energy efficient homes and green initiatives, broadband and health IT systems, neighborhood stabilization, and bold school reform, are indeed spawning noteworthy innovations among local public and private sector leaders.

Making all of this more significant is the fact that many of the most innovative and popular programs within ARRA have now made it into the FY 2011 budget. That’s a story we will delve into more, but the fact is that from the vantage point of the all-important ongoing budget, the recovery package is looking more and more like an important hatchery of new and reformed initiatives. In that sense, ARRA hasn’t been pretty, but it’s been a useful laboratory for governance.