The government has a big hole in its hull!

You’ve heard the expression, defining deviancy down.  The late and great Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined that phrase to describe cultural standards that seem to drop lower and lower. The reverse, a sort of inflation, is happening in financial scandal. Millions used to shock. Then billions. Now it takes a trillion to shock.

Everybody should be shocked by the federal improper payment figure. As Jared Serbu reported earlier this week, it’s accumulated to $1 trillion since 2004. The figure shouldn’t surprise, exactly. Every year the figure is comfortably north of $100 billion. So far, like a devouring, invasive insect swarm, it seems impervious to efforts at eradication. It’s as if spending on two major cabinet level departments is flushed down the toilet.

Yes, the government recovers some of the money. And some of it probably represents proper payments for which nobody can get find a corresponding purchase order, or invoice. But what a porous way to run things!

The Government Accountability Office’s Beryl Davis points out, better data and analysis can help. Fine, but as the old saying goes, a scale won’t help you lose weight.

The GAO, the administrations who preside over these payments, the chief financial officers — it’s not fair to say they’re nonchalant about it. More like inured, numb to the magnitude of it. A thousand billion. It’s as if every decade the government wastes the rough equivalent of an entire year’s executive branch spending.

And it’s not as if the government doesn’t know the locations of the blowouts. Primarily Health and Human Services through Medicare and Medicaid, IRS through fraudulently earned income tax credits, and Social Security. The improper payments went up for HHS, down a bit for the others. Some of it is outright fraud, some of it is lousy paperwork.

Good-government lacks sex appeal on the campaign trail. Remember when former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis ran for president against George H.W. Bush in 1988? At the convention after he was nominated, the first words out of his mouth were, and I paraphrase, “This is not about ideology, it’s about competence.” I thought, he may be right, but how can voters be inspired by that?

These days we’re hearing outlandish thoughts from both sides, but next to nothing about how the government can become a better steward of taxpayers dollars — a nearly quaint notion.

For the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an investment in big data analytical tools had produced little payoff so far. More hopeful is a decision a couple of years ago to open up some of the data it maintains on provider payments. Perhaps some smart analysts outside the government will use it to discover new fraud patterns or indicators.

Here’s a good opportunity to launch a public challenge. Only, individuals or organizations that come up with ideas that can be certified by a third party to reduce improper payments don’t get $1,000 or $10,000 prizes. How about $1 million per $1 billion?

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