Recovery Board’s success inspires others

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Lawmakers and open government experts have lauded the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board for implementing public websites detailing where Recovery Act money is being spent across the nation. Now, it’s receiving more acclaim for the impact the RAT Board is having on the government itself.

From stemming the tide of improper payments to changing how agencies make data accessible to new ways to engage citizens, the Recovery Board is bringing change to parts of the government that long have been problematic.

Take the Recovery Operations Center use of data mining tools and analysis software. It is having the biggest impact across government, says Earl Devaney, RAT Board chairman Tuesday during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security.

“The fact is the inspector generals community has never had these tools before as a community and now that we do, what we see is certainly the 29 IGs that have Recovery responsibilities are not only receiving information but bringing it to us,” he says. “As a result we have interaction we’ve never had before, “They tell me the material we are giving them is value added to their investigations. It’s saving them an awful lot of leg work, it’s cost effective for them to use the information so I would say this tool is something this tool will be using in the future.”

In fact, the Office of Management and Budget is expanding the use of these software tools to help recover more than $65 billion in improper payments at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. OMB found CMS makes the most improper payments across the government.

Danny Werfel, OMB controller, says the administration launched the initiative in late June after seeing the potential impact the tools could have to prevent improper payments.

“The tools essentially shines a light on new risk factors for where there might be fraud or prohibit activity taking place,” he says. “It created more of a multi dimensional view into the picture we have in front of us for finding problems. When we look at the current suite of information we have in today’s world before this tool came along, it lacks certain dimensions and lacks certain information that lets us see risks and red flags. The Recovery Board’s tool turns the information and combines it with other things on its axis a little bit and suddenly other things come to light that otherwise would not of.”

He adds previously research and analysis would be much more labor-intensive. He believes the tools come at the perfect time because resources are scarce and the potential to do more with less is great.

President Obama in June called on all agencies to reduce their improper payments by 50 percent. Obama also called on agencies to reduce the amount of improper payments by $50 billion by 2013.

Along with the RAT Board tools, Werfel says OMB is spreading best practices to agencies about how to use data mining software.

“The Department of Defense has prevented more than $700 million in improper payments to vendors over the past two year through the deployment of their business activity monitoring tool,” he says.

DoD’s tool along with the General Services Administration’s launch of the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS), Werfel says, is giving agencies more ways to make sure funding is going to the right person or company.

“The integration has begun and GSA has now brought together the data on federal contractors for those who have been suspended or debarred or those who owe an outstanding federal debt that would impact awarding contracts,” he says. “That is the first step in bringing together additional databases. We are working with the Social Security Administration right now. We are working with other federal agencies to figure out how to start architecting other databases into the mix.”

Werfel says within the next six months the portal, called the Do Not Pay list, will have new data and within a year, the site should be more fully integrated with other databases.

An OMB spokeswoman says the administration didn’t send out a specific memo to use the Do Not Pay database, but the Federal Acquisition Regulations Council updated the FAR with a rule, which required agencies to use the new database.

Devaney says one of the biggest impediments to ensuring full transparency of Recovery Act data is the lack of standardization among agencies in how they identify contract and grants awards.

He says all 28 agencies participating in the Recovery Act have a unique coding system for contracts and grants. This makes the process of reviewing and checking award data arduous, Devaney says.

“When we have what we call mismatches, we have to almost literally have to hand search these awards to see if they match up,” he says. “If that problem was fixed, and I don’t know if it would be very practical to fix on it awards in the past, I think we would have to do something going forward. The board wants to provide a solution. We want to work with OMB not only to identify the problem, but find a way forward.”

Werfel says OMB is working with the RAT Board on this problem, but it is more of a longer term priority.

“What we have been doing so far is making sure agencies in particular have a robust set of awards and control totals to make sure we know exactly how many awards went out so when recipient information is coming in, we can compare it to what the agencies know what has gone out the door and we can see any gaps in reporting,” he says. “If we had a cross-government common account and common program structure, these efforts would be easier and more seamless than they are today. But they are occurring.”

As for, Devaney says later this summer and into the fall will be a busy time.

The RAT Board is holding more focus groups around the country to improve the look and usability of next ones are coming to Detroit and Phoenix.

Later this summer or early fall, will include a widget to let citizens have a real-time display of recovery projects in the congressional districts of their choice on their personal website. And finally the RAT Board will reach out for ideas from the public to create new applications for the site, Devaney says.

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