By Mike Maciag
December 16, 2011
(Governing) — The Government Accountability and Transparency Board (GAT Board) issued sweeping recommendations earlier this week aimed at bolstering the federal government’s efforts to track spending and reduce fraud.
The federal board’s report calls for a centralized system to monitor spending and improve data collection among agencies. The proposed government-wide framework represents a stark contrast from how agencies currently collect information, with contracts and awards fragmented across varying systems.
“The recommendations weren’t meant to be middle of the road, but really affect some sort of positive change,” said Ross Bezark, executive director of the GAT Board and chief of staff of the Recovery Board.
Any new systems, though, will likely require funding and authorization from Congress at a time when lawmakers are reluctant to approve spending for new projects.
The board, established by the president in June, consists of inspectors general and other top federal officials. Wednesday’s report outlined the group’s initial proposals.
The report to President Obama identified three main recommendations:
- A government-wide framework to oversee spending across federal agencies, including analytical tools to mitigate fraud and waste.
- A “single automated electronic collection system” for data reporting and standardization. This would allow the public to view data in a manner similar to information posted on Recovery.gov.
- Implementation of a standard award identification number across all agencies.
Much of the GAT Board’s work has focused on assessing the efforts of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the group tasked with promoting transparency regarding stimulus funds.
Accordingly, the report’s initial recommendations are modeled after systems established to monitor Recovery Act spending. The Recovery Board initiated FederalAccountability.gov, a password-protected Web portal with analytic tools available to agencies, and Recovery.gov, a public website providing data and related visualizations.
The proposed new systems leverage existing data-quality functionality and other built-in features of the Recovery Act websites. The board has not determined, though, precisely where additional data will reside, Bezark said. USASpending.gov could potentially serve as a repository, or the federal government could launch an entirely new portal.
Most federal spending and related data is currently scattered across multiple agency websites. The report states such information is “trapped in a complex web of systems and processes that are both overlapping and fragmented.”
With the Recovery Act systems, data is posted within 30 days of the end of a quarter. Bezark said this “preventative approach” encourages agencies to closely monitor spending and dissuades those looking to defraud the government.
The existing Recovery Act tools allow inspectors general and other interested groups to better share and collect data, Bezark said. Before the systems launched, it was difficult to detect trends across agencies.
“There really was no one looking holistically at what was going on with fraud, waste and abuse,” Bezark said.
For state and local governments, Bezark said the proposed government-wide systems could also reduce the reporting burden.
But it’s not clear whether the proposed systems would open up significant amounts of new data to public scrutiny. This will depend on specific data sets the system collects, which has yet to be determined, Bezark said.
Sam Rosen-Amy, a policy analyst at the nonprofit OMB Watch, said the federal government should capitalize on transparency efforts stemming from the Recovery Act.
“We’re very happy with these recommendations and certainly hope Congress and the president take them seriously,” Rosen-Amy said.
The proposed systems should translate well to other areas of spending, Rosen-Amy said.
One potential obstacle could be the price tag for the proposed framework and electronic collection system specified in the first and second recommendation.
“The main challenge will really be funding for this,” Rosen-Amy said. “Both of those [recommendations] will take a lot of money to make it happen.”
Although the report does not specify any cost estimates, Bezark said the proposed Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act of 2011 would provide sufficient funding to initiate much of the recommendations.
“The money that would be saved from the convoluted process would be made up pretty quickly,” he said.