Pushing back on improper payments begins at front end of fight

Normally when someone I’m interviewing responds to a question by saying “that’s a great question,” I don’t think much about it.

But today when one of the recognized experts about improper payments in the federal government said “that’s a great point” when I asked him something about improper payments, it caught my ear.

The background: the Government Accountability Office testified before Congress that improper payments are on the rise in government, despite an Obama administration effort to cut them. The GAO’s Beryl Davis was my guest recently to discuss the story behind the numbers. My takeaway from that interview was that the problem may lie with the ability of more agencies and programs to find and report improper payments, as much as an actual increase in improper payments. In search of context about the numbers, I welcomed former Office of Management and Budget Controller (and former Acting IRS Commissioner) Danny Werfel to In Depth.

The “great point” was in response to one of Werfel’s two explanations for the increase. He cited more money going out as one reason. That makes sense. The other reason was the complexity of programs. The more complicated the program and its execution, the more likely it will be susceptible to improper payments. That makes sense, too. But the solution seemed to me to be pretty obvious.

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“In the case where programs are structurally complex, is there a consideration as much as there should be ahead of time, when programs are built?” I asked him. “Is there somebody at the table [from the executive or legislative branch] saying ‘if you build it that way, it’s going to make it a lot more likely that we’re going to have to go after improper payments rather than building it in a more simple manner up front?'”

That was my “great point” moment. Sadly, the reality isn’t as great.

“When you consider a piece of legislation, there are a bunch of different ways to evaluate its impact,” Werfel said. “In particular, the Congressional Budget Office or the Office of Management and Budget might say, ‘here is the impact [this] legislation will have on the budget bottom line from an outlay perspective, or a budget scoring perspective.’ But … there is certainly not a formal moment where you look at the legislation and you score it from an administrative complexity [perspective] and therefore a likelihood of potential error that’s going to be really difficult to root out if the program goes forward in this way.”

Danny read my mind as he continued, “I think it’s something that certainly needs to be more on the radar screen as policies are formulated and legislation is created.”

Indeed. If agencies will be graded on something on the back end, they deserve to have that risk mitigated on the front end, so instead of pay-and-chase, that money never gets paid in the first place.

The hopeful, optimistic me thinks Congress would see the benefit of tighter collaboration. The cynical me thinks Congress doesn’t really care about the front end, because it’s not as fun and sexy as yelling at agencies on the back end.

So far, the evidence from the Hill is that the cynical me is winning.

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