Federal Drive with Tom Temin continued its conversation Tuesday with Michael Horowitz, the chairman of the Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee and inspector general at the Justice Department. Allison Lerner, the National Science Foundation inspector general and chair of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) also joined to discuss what the IG community thinks of the top challenges for the federal government in the next year.
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Tom Temin: Ms. Lerner, good to have you join us.
Allison Lerner: Nice to be here, Tom.
Tom Temin: All right. So the CIGIE – and you are now the chair of the CIGIE, right?
Allison Lerner: I am, yes indeed, since Jan. 1.
Tom Temin: So that means Mr. Horowitz is down by a hat and maybe can have a Sunday or two off?
Allison Lerner: We’re hoping.
Tom Temin: Ok. I wanted to talk first about – you’re sort of stealing the thunder of the [Government Accountability Office] here with this latest report on the top challenges, performance challenges facing multiple federal agencies. Tell us about the background of this report and how often this is compiled.
Allison Lerner: Sure, well, and this report was inspired by the wonderful work that GAO has done in this space. And two years ago, going into the beginning of the opening of Congress in 2018. You know, as we were heading up to that point, Michael and I realized that our community had value to add in that conversation. And so we did the first of these reports and released it in January – February, I think of 2018. And so we’re following up on that now. And our goal is to keep doing this every two years to start out. Eery four years with a new administration, every two years with a new Congress, and share what our community is seeing as the major challenges facing federal government.
Tom Temin: And I want to bear in for a moment on financial management, because in recent years, most of the agencies, I think everyone except the Defense Department has gotten what they call a clean financial audit, which was years in making – something required, I think under the CFO Act 30 years ago or so. And so there seems to have been some substantial progress there that culminated a couple of years ago. What are the chief concerns left in financial management?
Allison Lerner: Certainly there’s some issues that are evergreen, there. Always there’s a concern about the quality of the systems that are being used to oversee financial management and making sure that they are up to the task in the 21st Century. And I know that’s a challenge that many agencies are still facing as they try to modernize. And certainly this year, another challenge with financial management is when you have large influxes of cash as it’s happened under the CARES Act that agencies are having to grapple with on top of their regular funding, and ensuring that those funds are managed well is vital.
Tom Temin: Yes, because the improper payment threat never seems to really go away, does it?
Allison Lerner: Well, you can make progress, as the Department of Transportation noted. This year this agency had just gotten their improper payment rate down to below 1%. But they’re quite concerned that with all of the additional funding coming through now that they’re not going to be able to sustain that and they’ll be back at higher rates.
Tom Temin: And Michael, one of the areas here also overlaps with your [Pandemic Response Accountability Committee] work, and that is the challenge – homeland security, disaster preparedness and COVID-19. I guess that’s kind of a slow rolling disaster, not like a hurricane, but a new form of disaster in this century.
Michael Horowitz: Exactly right. And that’s one of the points we’ve been making, as we’ve been looking at these issues, which is, yes, the pandemic response effort is extraordinary. It’s been a one-in-100-year event. But we’ve seen big events, not quite as big, with the hurricanes, with fires, with floods, with earthquakes – it demonstrates the importance of being ready for these events. What we’ve seen over and over again in the pandemic space is areas such as GAO has identified in the past where they’ve made recommendations that had they been implemented, could have been beneficial in this pandemic, even though those recommendations weren’t specifically made with a pandemic in mind.
Tom Temin: Alright, and let’s talk about grant management, because that’s an another area – most of the emphasis seems to be on contract management over the years and decades. And of course, I think grant spending is larger than contract spending, if I’m correct on that, across the federal government. And so what’s new here and what are the challenges in grant management besides making sure they’re spent correctly?
Allison Lerner: There are always concerns about ensuring that the money is going to the right people, and that it’s been used for the for the appropriate purposes. And those challenges exist in a normal environment and they’re exacerbated in situations like we have right now. When on top of normal grant programs, you have the need to get money out very quickly in response to a disaster like this. The world we’re in now has taken this challenge and you’re correct. I mean, in a normal year, grants expenditures either equal or exceed contract expenditures. This year, they were close to $1 trillion.
Tom Temin: Yes, that’s right. The pandemic overlaps here too, because besides all of the direct spending to citizens and businesses, that were huge amounts that went to research organizations, medical organizations, companies to develop everything from the vaccines themselves to all of this other research and so on. Is that an agency-by-agency IG concerned next or is it a PRAC concern next, or both? Michael?
Michael Horowitz: It’s both. Each of the IGs are looking at their own agency issues and from a broader perspective, the PRAC is looking at it – overarching issues there. And you’re exactly right. And it also cross cuts the other issue, another issue we’ve identified at the PRAC as a top challenge, which is what we talked about earlier: Data management and data access and data information. Because what we’ve found is the data’s being collected on the initial grant, but those grants that go to state and local governments are then being sub granted out to the actual providers. You need to collect that information down to that level, to understand whether the grant went to the right place, and again, what the impact was.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michael Horowitz, he is chairman of the Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee, and IG at the Justice Department. And with Allison Lerner – she is the IG at the National Science Foundation, and chair of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. And I want to get to one other pandemic kind of highlight, which had its manifestation a couple of ways, if you include the Capitol riot as one of them. And that is the continuity of government. And continuity of operations has been of concern for a long time. But it seems like we’ve learned a lot about continuity of government and what’s possible because of how quickly the pandemic forced a new mode of working on federal agencies. What do you see is the learnings there, and how does the federal government move forward in terms of how it thinks about itself, in COOP situations?
Allison Lerner: Just as our day-to-day operations are going to change significantly in the post-pandemic world because of everything we’ve learned through this remote work environment, I think our COOP planning is going to change as well, and build on some of the things that we’ve learned in this great experiment in remote work that we’ve had over the past year – plus, as we look to the future. We’ve seen impacts on the plans that had been made, that were undermined by the pandemic coming. And so I think that just as we’ll be rethinking how we manage our day-to-day operations, we’ll be rethinking our continuity plans.
Tom Temin: Because there’s another question in here with respect to the challenges of multiple agencies that it’s not specifically in your report, but it kind of lives in the spaces between all of the other topics. And that is the gigantic expenditure on federal real estate. Again, administration after administration has tried to get after that. But it seems like now we have data and experience that could radically, potentially change how the government thinks about real estate and the billions it spends there, too.
Allison Lerner: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s interesting, when you look at the first report that we did, we had a challenge, instead of the challenge that we have in this report on disaster preparedness and COVID-19, we had a challenge on facilities management, which kind of fell out and this year’s report. I have no doubt when we do this again in two years, there’s going to be a much greater emphasis on the challenge relating to facilities for precisely the reason that you note, Tom.
Tom Temin: And finally, do you folks have a single area of concern that you’re personally most concerned about?
Allison Lerner: The top-of-the-mind issue that I’m encountering across, in my office and across the community, is what is our work going to look like when we come back? And not – affects the agency’s ability to accomplish its mission. How is that going to change? But how are our day-to-day operations going to have to be altered in all of this? And so that’s an area that we’re focused with great intensity on.
Tom Temin: And Michael?
Michael Horowitz: Well, I would say, for the agencies, given the multiple crises we’re facing is the delivery of services, getting the services to the people that need those – that help, whether it’s on the health care side, the economic side, or other programs. I think for us as IGs, I think the biggest issue for us is to ensure that we are able to do our jobs so we can continue to have accountability in government, and transparency in government. I think that’s a huge challenge and something we need to accomplish.
Tom Temin: And I said that was the last question, but I didn’t want to go without asking you about your legislative priorities. Also for the next session of Congress, they’ve got a lot on their mind these few weeks, but eventually, it might settle down to what constitutes normal in this type – this day and age. But what are the top legislative priorities for IGs and for CIGIE?
Allison Lerner: Well, a lot of the top priorities are focused exactly on what Michael, the point Michael made right there: Changes that are necessary and actions that we think will help ensure the continued ability of our community to do its nonpartisan, independent work. So based on events of the past couple of years, there are changes that we’d like to see to ensure that, if an IG leaves the person who serves as an acting IG is independent in both mind and appearance and either comes from the office – that specific OIG – or comes from the IG community and you don’t have political people put into that role, who might not pass that appearance test. And there are other changes that we’re seeking just to firm up some of the norms that have guided our community and protected it over the years.
Tom Temin: Yes, and you’re looking for some specifics too, like testimonial subpoena authority, and prohibiting the use of appropriated funds to denied IG access. That seems like a small detail, but it’s kind of an important issue.
Allison Lerner: Very significant. And, we have seen the benefit of the leg which that has prevented people from using appropriated funds to deny access. Unfortunately, it’s not uniform across government. And what we’re trying to do is ensure that every OIG has that protection available to it.
Tom Temin: Alison Lerner is inspector general of the National Science Foundation and chair of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. Thanks so much for joining me.
Allison Lerner: Thank you, Tom.
Tom Temin: And Michael Horowitz is the chairman of the Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee and IG of the Justice Department. Thank you.
Michael Horowitz: Great to be here again, Tom. Thank you.
Tom Temin: We’ll post both these interviews at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.
Editor’s note: the image associated with this article was taken in January 2020.