Trump’s improper payment goal not impossible, but needs investments in personnel and IT

Both the Trump administration and Congress are offering new goals to cut government improper payments over the next five to 10 years. Experts in the field say t...

Agencies have been told twice now, both by the Trump administration and members of the House Budget Committee, to make a solid dent in recovering billions of dollars in improper payments beginning in fiscal 2018.

The House Budget Committee’s 2018 resolution, which members passed Wednesday, proposes the administration create a commission to examine ways agencies could cut improper payments by 50 percent over the next five years. Improper payments are defined an those made in the wrong amount, to the wrong people, or for the wrong reason.

The House proposal follows the president’s 2018 budget request, which tasks agencies to reduce improper payments by $142 billion over 10 years.

Agencies exceeded $144 billion in improper payments in fiscal 2016, up from $137 billion in 2015. It’s the fourth consecutive year the federal government increased the amount of money described as “improper payments.”

The numbers and the time frames might be different, but the general message is the same: cut improper payments by roughly $700 million over the next five to 10 years.

“That’s not an impossible goal, if you do what I talked about, though,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, told reporters July 20. “You have to invest in the enterprise, not disinvest. You’re going to have to make huge upgrades in new technology. You’re going to have to hire skilled people with technology backgrounds, with legal backgrounds.”

Connolly has long been a champion of agencies’ work on improper payments. But he said Congress hasn’t done all it can to help agencies make more progress.

“Technology will help us,” he said, during a July 20 speech at ACT-IAC’s fraud and abuse forum in Washington. “It will catch the duplication. It will catch the redundancy. It will catch a lot of the errors. We need an upfront investment in technology, but we also need a mindset that says it’s not acceptable, and the goal ought to be to move it to zero. We know we’ll never reach zero.”

Connolly said the Modernizing Government Technology Act, if passed by the Senate, would help some agencies make a down payment on the kind of technology they need, but Congress also needs to consider how personnel fit into any progress.

He said he’d prefer to find incentives for agencies or individual employees who uncover the root causes of improper payments and find ways to bring back savings.

“You incentivize your workforce. You try to make people more productive by paying attention to morale. You look at incentives. You certainty don’t disparage your own workforce. No CEO would do that and get away with it.”

It’s that mentality that inspired the Bonuses for Cost Cutters Act, which the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee marked up and passed earlier this week. The legislation expands agencies’ authority to hand out cash bonuses no more than $20,000 to employees who disclose instances of waste and fraud and find new cost savings in their organizations.

“That’s a better private sector mentality,” Connolly said. “That’s a good principle in private sector management. It works; we need to apply it in the public sector.”

Reducing improper payments could help government reduce the national debt or reverse sequestration. And with the government’s overall approval rating at 17 percent, Connolly said the public’s faith depends on it.

“In the context, it’s really important as part of restoring faith, American public faith, in their government,” he said. “It’s all, potentially, good news. We need the political will. We need the management structure. We need the technology investment, and we in Congress, need to back federal employees up when they take this seriously and decide to tackle it, and know that there will be a reward for that. It will be incentivized, not punished or decentivized.”

Dave Mader, former Office of Management and Budget controller and now chief strategy officer for the civilian sector at Deloitte, said he’s intrigued by the House committee’s idea of creating a commission to look at improper payments. During his tenure at the IRS, the agency created a bicameral, bipartisan commission that discussed restructuring back in 1996.

“I can tell you based on first-hand experience, IRS would not have been successful in doing what they’ve had to do over the last 10 or 15 years without having that commission input,” Mader said. “The forces, both in the executive branch with the President and the people on the Hill in both House and Senate that understand that only by working together are we going to be able to solve this problem.”

There are some minor changes in statute that could also help agencies make big strides, Mader said. The Obama administration identified 12 legislative changes that would allow agencies to collect the information they currently don’t have or let them access other agencies’ databases.

“We need to have a whole of government [approach],” Mader said. “We need the executive branch working more closely with the legislative branch in coming with a set of solutions, because there is no silver bullet. You have to look at Medicare, Medicaid [and] the VA. They all have improper payments, but they’re very unique.”

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