Commerce IG deems GAO staffing higher priority than OTA

Citing the Government Accountability Office’s plans to increase its capacity to conduct science and technology audits later this year, the Commerce Department’s inspector general said staffing up GAO makes more sense than reviving the Office of Technology Assessment.

“I think that that is a much better use of money, than creating something else, if there’s already somebody in that space,” Commerce IG Peggy Gustafson said last Thursday at an Atlantic Council panel.

These comments come as some members of the new House select committee on modernizing Congress, including Reps. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and John Sarbanes (D-Md.), have renewed efforts to restore the tech-focused watchdog that Congress killed in 1995.

“Since the defunding of OTA, Congress has found other sources of S&T assessment, although
none are as comprehensive or singularly dedicated to being a resource on S&T policy issues for
Congress as OTA once was,” Foster wrote in his testimony before the committee’s inaugural meeting March 12.

Beyond killing OTA, Sabarnes noted that Congress has imposed “self-imposed massive cuts to its own budget,” resulting in staffing cuts to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

While the legislative branch already hosts a variety of oversight entities, Foster said CRS “does not have a significant technology assessment capability,” while GAO spends months and even years on audits and investigations before issuing a report.

However, OTA, he added, would provide “quick response” analysis to emerging tech challenges.

The bid to bring back OTA comes as GAO plans to grow its information technology and cybersecurity team from 140 employees to 175 before the end of this year. In addition, the watchdog offices looks to eventually expand its new Science, Technology, Assessment and Analytics Team from 70 employees to 140 employees.

Gustafson said it makes more sense to fund an entity like GAO that’s already up and running, rather than recreate watchdog office from scratch.

“It’s very difficult to set up another bureaucracy, because that’s a lot of work and a lot of expense,” she said.

Michael Horowitz, Justice Department IG and chairman of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), said his office meets quarterly with GAO auditors to avoid overlapping audits. 

“They have limited resources, we have limited resources. The idea is to make sure we’re building on each other’s work or not interfering in each other’s work and complementing it,” Horowitz said. 

IGs see big data as ‘force multiplier’

The inspector general community, now more than ever, has turned to big data tools to detect fraud, waste and abuse.

Daniel Levinson, the Department of Health and Human Services IG, said big data tools have transformed the way the watchdog agency conducts oversight on everything from Medicare and Medicaid to prescription drugs.

“Big-data gives us a window into how health care actually operates on-the-ground in ways that the historically simply did not exist,” Levinson said.

Those big-data tools, he added, have helped track a volume of opioid prescriptions that “plainly made no sense” and led to the watchdog agency’s national fraud take-down last summer, which led to a number of fraud cases were brought.

“I think that the data, in many of those cases, clearly directed us towards being able to bring those cases to a successful conclusion,” Levinson said.

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Gustafson said data analytics capabilities have become a “force multiplier” for her office’s oversight work, but noted the quality of the underlying data raises its own challenges.

“We’ve had to release a report with caveats, saying we couldn’t go as far as we wanted to, and we couldn’t make the projections that we wanted to, because in the end, we simply couldn’t trust the data,” she said. “I don’t know that it’ll ever not be a problem.”

With the upcoming 2020 census, the Commerce IG office has received funding specifically to oversee the population count. This marks the first year that Americans can respond to the census through the internet, and Census Bureau expects more than 60 percent of respondents will answer online.

In addition, Census enumerators will follow-up with non-responding households using iPhones loaded with a customized app that will assign daily routes and transmit 2020 count responses.

Gustafson said an internet-driven census could make it easier for her office to oversee the bureau’s operations.

“If it works, it’ll be fascinating,” she said. “There will be a lot of data that we will be able to use, and that Census will be able to use, to see if the enumerators are where they should be [often] enough.”

Glenn Fine, the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, said DoD’s much-hyped audit last year may not have yielded a clean audit opinion, nor was it expected to, but he added that the audit still provided valuable oversight into the department’s more than 3 million personnel, $700 billion budget and nearly $3 trillion in assets, and helped military services better understand their equipment inventories.

“If they don’t know what spare parts they have for aircraft, they might not have enough spare parts that they need to fly the aircraft, or they may be buying too many spare parts if they don’t know what’s in their inventory,” Fine said.

While about one-fourth of its oversight work comes from statutory requirements, the DoD IG also relies on whistleblower complaints to conduct oversight. But on any given year, the hotline gets more than 15,000 calls a year.

“We can’t dismiss any of them, we have to look at them carefully. And that’s the key challenge, to separate the wheat from the chaff,” Fine said. “Sometimes whistleblowers will come forward when they are being accused of doing something wrong. And then the response will be, ‘Well, they’re just disgruntled employees.’ But even if they’re disgruntled, they may have a key piece of evidence that discloses waste, fraud, abuse, so that we have to take it very seriously — and we do take it seriously. That’s one of the key ways we get information to uncover and detect and utter waste, fraud and abuse.”

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