HUD is way behind on a crucial data sharing, anti-fraud portal

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is one of something like 30 agencies that have a hand in disaster recovery. In trying to avoid duplicating benefits to disas...

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is one of something like 30 agencies that have a hand in disaster recovery. In trying to avoid duplicating benefits to disaster victims, in 2017 HUD started work on a data portal. A place where grantees would load information on benefits the had already received, so HUD could see it. HUD’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found the data portal is only partially completed. The OIG also found questions about whether the portal is a high enough priority for HUD’s technology staff. To all of this out, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke in studio with HUD Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And I was trying to study the wiring of all of this disaster recovery data reporting, and I had trouble tracing it. So maybe just give us a little bit of the context of where this data portal that HUD is building fits into this whole picture.

Rae Oliver Davis Sure. I’ll do my best with that because it is complex, I think you’re right to point that out. Well, first and foremost you and I have talked about, several times, I think, the vast mission of HUD. And I don’t know, maybe before this report, some people didn’t even recognize that had played a part in disaster recovery, but they do. You pointed out the 30 agencies, somewhat, 30 federal agencies that contribute to this, of course, FEMA being the biggest the largest, SBA people probably recognize they have a role as well. And then HUD comes down the line with what we call unmet need and now also mitigation. So how can we mitigate against disasters in the future? In terms of this tool in reporting, this is a data warehouse that grantees theoretically already have access to, because they’re already using it to report their data into HUD. So HUD keeps track of them that way.

Tom Temin The grantees are not necessarily the disaster victims, but housing authorities/

Rae Oliver Davis Correct. OK, that’s a that’s a very good thing to point out. First of all, the way HUD administers this funding is it’s given to HUD through a supplemental appropriation from Congress, and then it’s passed to grantees. It’s a block grant, which means that the grantee is typically a municipality, a state, that type of entity. And then it’s decentralized, because to carry out the disaster recovery relief, they have to further give money to other sub grantees, recipients and even individuals, those being the beneficiaries, as you’ve said. Yes, certainly.

Tom Temin Right. So then the purpose of this data portal then is to help everyone make sure that people get what they have coming under the law, but not double benefits or duplicative benefits.

Rae Oliver Davis Sure, we call it duplication of benefits. We’re looking to see if an individual or an entity has gotten money beyond what their need is, a windfall, so to speak. And the grantees are tasked with that. That’s set out in statute, it’s set out in their grant agreements with the department. So on top of grantees, safeguarding resources, making sure they have infrastructure, looking at the eligibility of beneficiaries, they also have to make sure that they are guarding the funds in a way that they go to the intended person. And one entity or one individual doesn’t get more than they’re supposed to get. Yes, that’s right.

Tom Temin All right. So what is HUD supposed to be doing here? What’s the project you actually looked at?

Rae Oliver Davis So this is a plan to automate the transfer of data from FEMA, which is the largest entity that participates in disaster recovery. And they usually go first, and get that data to the grantees. Get the most current data, get the most real time data to ensure this is not an overly burdensome process. You look at the position of grantees, and this is a time of crisis. We’re also dealing with a remarkable amount of money. I mean, between 2015 and 2021, HUD got $47 billion between 2015 and 2021, and now here we are, 2023, we’re looking at $100 billion that goes to HUD alone.

Tom Temin Right. And all you have to do is look at what’s happening in Hawaii to get some sense of how this process works and how expensive it can be.

Rae Oliver Davis It is. And thinking about where people are in the moment when this funding is getting out. Think about what they’re dealing with. We saw that, and frankly, the pandemic with the CARES Act funding, grantees got a tremendous amount of money all of a sudden that maybe they didn’t have the capacity to oversee. But yes, there’s a lot going on. It’s a critical time for beneficiaries and grantees. At the same time, they’re trying to do the best they can to build their infrastructure and safeguard the funds against improper payments, fraud and any kind of improper duplication of benefits. Yes.

Tom Temin All right. So this was started in 2017, and Congress directed HUD to build this automated portal and to keep it a priority. What is the status of it, actually?

Rae Oliver Davis Well, as you point out, it was conceptualized in 2017 and tested. I am waiting for my most recent update on this. We did anticipate that there might be completion in June of this year, but that’s come and gone. The big thing that we’re waiting on is for HUD to award the contract. When they first started down this path with this plan, they were planning on leveraging an existing contract vehicle that they had with GSA. They learned that contract vehicle was going to terminate, it was going to lapse before the completion of the project. So now they’ve had to award a brand new contract. So that’s really what we’re waiting for here.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Rae Oliver Davis. She’s inspector general of Housing and Urban Development. Well, if the project was started in 2017, what did they do between now and then if there’s no contract?

Rae Oliver Davis That’s a good question. So a number of things are at play there. First, we had some staff turnover, both at HUD, people who were focused on this project. We had staff turnover at the contract level. The contract itself, this idea of leveraging the existing contract and now looking for a new one, that’s something that we see. We talk a lot about how procurement and contract management is really a top management challenge for HUD. It’s something we hear from the principals. It’s something we reflect every year in our reports. The stakeholders need to get aligned, whether that’s the office of CIO or CPD on the prioritization of this project. I think that’s happened. We see improvement in those areas within HUD. In terms of CIO, CFO, what we call kind of our support components with the program areas and prioritization. They have dashboards now where they track projects. So they’re making headway there. But I do think that was a play here. We had also, frankly, a misunderstanding about congressional approval. I mean, HUD is set up in a way where like every organization, Congress holds the purse strings. HUD has to go to Congress for authority, for approval once they have a plan in place. And there was a slight misunderstanding in the beginning. They thought that this was something they had to run past Congress. As it turns out, HUD does have about 10% flexibility in its funding to play with. And I’m sure they’d like more. I’m sure Congress likes having the oversight that they do. Anyway, it was with below the threshold, so they didn’t have to have the congressional approval, but they did hold things up for a little bit. But I think we’re back on track.

Tom Temin Well, is HUD’s plan still current? Because between 2017 and now, this whole notion of cloud computing has really blown up in the federal government. Maybe the portal should be a cloud facility instead of a server that HUD is operating.

Rae Oliver Davis I think they’d be a good question for the CIO of HUD. And if you don’t ask it, Tom, maybe I should, maybe I should ask that question. I don’t know. We’ll see. We’re going to be monitoring this.

Tom Temin We can get each other in trouble.

Rae Oliver Davis Yeah, but we’ll be monitoring this to see how effective it is, and whether it makes sense from a technology standpoint as well.

Tom Temin And your recommendations in the meantime.

Rae Oliver Davis So the first recommendation we made was more data. Look, this tool is only going to be as effective as the data in it. And HUD wants the grantees to have current data. Right now, the plan is set up with only one program at FEMA. Now it’s the largest program, so it’s bound to be helpful. To HUD’s point, adding data to this tool is going to take time. I mean, I think they said probably two to three years, even for one additional data set. And that’s because we’re dealing with other federal components, legality. We’ll have to have legal review from multiple agencies. We’re dealing with funding to complete a project like that. So that’s something that is somewhat out of their control, but we’d like to see continuous progress.

Tom Temin SBA comes to mind for example.

Rae Oliver Davis Sure. Yeah. There’s certainly the question of whether or not additional data beyond FEMA is appropriate. We’ve talked to grantees. I think most of the grantees would say this is certainly a good idea. If they can have a data warehouse where they can go for one stop shopping, that’d be fantastic. So we’d love to see it come to that. But we have to recognize that some of this is simply out of HUD’s control. The other recommendation we made was that they complete their own documentation. They have a project planning policy in-house, HUD does. And IT projects have to go through that policy to ensure that they are looking for risk, things like the contract that we’re talking about, they’re spotting issues like that along the way. And frankly, it’s my understanding that the documents that we’re waiting on are going to require an award of the contract first. So that is really the key next step.

Tom Temin Yeah. What do they say? Nothing happens till somebody buys something. So it’ll happen. And HUD generally agreed with your recommendations?

Rae Oliver Davis Yes. They’re making progress. We’re waiting to hear their actual response on how they’re going to accomplish these things. But they appreciated the review, I believe. And I think they certainly agreed with that and are making progress in that direction.

Tom Temin Yeah, you can only imagine what effectiveness and efficiency would be in place if this project in this system was in place given the disasters in the last 12 months.

Rae Oliver Davis Oh, absolutely. And in terms of ultimately why this is important, controls on the front end are the best thing. If you’re in the standing in the shoes of a beneficiary, you might down the line be asked to pay back money. Talk about a financial drain, talk about an emotional hit after you’ve been through a disaster. It’s much better to prevent these things on the front end. And I think that’s what this tool will do.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    A portion of President Donald Trump's first proposed budget, focusing on the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and released by the Office of Management and Budget, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

    HUD is way behind on a crucial data sharing, anti-fraud portal

    Read more
    A portion of President Donald Trump's first proposed budget, focusing on the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and released by the Office of Management and Budget, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

    HUD is way behind on a crucial data sharing, anti-fraud portal

    Read more