One of the best reasons to adopt consistent data standards for government spending information – as the DATA Act of 2014 requires the entire U.S. executive branch to do – is that standardized data is easier to analyze. Meaning, in short: fraudsters, beware!
With consistent data fields identifying grantees, contractors, accounts, programs, projects, and so on, across multiple agencies, it becomes possible to deploy some mean anti-fraud analytics.
But last week, Republicans and Democrats in Congress announced that the dream of a government-wide anti-fraud analytics platform – a dream that was once at the core of the DATA Act’s goals – is near death.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), better known as the stimulus law, gave us a first taste of the potential of analytics to save taxpayers’ money. ARRA put a temporary entity, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, in charge of stimulus grantees’ and contractors’ reports on how they spent the money. The Board chose to apply consistent data standards to those reports. For the first time, spending information became open data, across agency lines.
The Board set up the first government-wide data analytics platform, known as the Recovery Operations Center, or ROC. The ROC allowed inspectors general to search across the whole universe of stimulus spending to make comparisons and find problems.
The ROC was a spectacular success: inspectors general using the platform initiated investigations that saved over $100 million in funds recovered from questionable grantees and contractors (or prevented from being paid out in the first place), paying for the costs of the ROC many times over. And they generated recommendations for the more prudent spending of over $8 billion.
When Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Mark Warner first wrote the DATA Act in the spring of 2011, they wanted to preserve the ROC beyond the expiration of the stimulus law, and expand its authority to allow it to analyze all federal spending, rather than just stimulus spending. The first version of the DATA Act did exactly that.
But during the DATA Act’s winding path to passage, Issa and Warner were forced to scale back their plan for government-wide antifraud analytics. The White House opposed the preservation of the Recovery Board as an independent entity. So did Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who became the lead Republican on the crucial Senate committee, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC).
The final DATA Act doesn’t directly preserve the ROC. It does authorize the Treasury Department to take on the ROC’s assets and start a new analytics platform. But now it is clear that won’t happen.
According to a letter the chairs and ranking members of the House Oversight Committee and the HSGAC sent to Treasury last Thursday, the Government Accountability Office has confirmed Treasury won’t be starting a new analytics platform. Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Tom Carper (D-DE) are asking Treasury to explain further.
But the basic problems appear to be that Treasury lacks the law enforcement authorities that made the ROC so effective; can’t absorb the ROC’s personnel, without whom the assets don’t mean much; and hasn’t sought the needed authorization to spend the ROC’s remaining funding.
If Treasury doesn’t absorb and operate the ROC, the ROC’s job will soon be nobody’s job. No entity, anywhere in the executive branch, will have the necessary authority or bandwidth to analyze federal spending, across all agencies, to combat waste and fraud.
That’s a loss for the DATA Act, and more importantly a loss for taxpayers. But it’s also an opportunity for Congress to give the job to somebody else. Congress needs to introduce, and pass, a new law setting up a ROC-style platform, housed somewhere other than Treasury, with a clear mandate to apply Big Data to Big Government.
A government-wide anti-fraud analytics platform could illuminate, and eliminate, many billions of dollars in waste and fraud. It could help resource-poor inspectors general prioritize investigations for maximum return. It could be amply funded from the savings it creates.
Treasury’s choice means Congress has a choice: embrace data analytics, catch fraudsters, and protect taxpayers – or let the moment slide.