Data Sharing: An Antidote to Taxpayer Rip-Offs
There’s a long road ahead before federal agencies agree to systematically share data, a process that would give investigators a leg up on detecting and preventing fraud, waste, and abuse in government programs. One baby step at a time pretty much sums it up. At a recent workshop in Washington on data analytics, senior government oversight officials took a step forward, agreeing to focus on ideas that would lead to better data sharing.
Sharing is really quite important especially when the name of the game is harnessing the power of big data. There’s lots of data flooding government offices each day—really, so much data in many varieties and in huge volumes. How government agencies use, share, and manage that data will go a long way toward preventing fraudsters from ripping off taxpayers.
Keeping government operations clean is critical considering the tough economic conditions of the past few years. Every dollar wasted or stolen is a dollar that isn’t used in a government program designed to feed, house, protect, and generally assist Americans most in need.
A big test will come in the coming months as the Recovery Board, the Inspector General community, others in law-enforcement, and state and local communities join forces to monitor the $60.2 billion Congress set aside to rebuild communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. A major challenge will be the lack of a central data system for this spending information. Thus, it’s imperative that agencies, IGs, and state and local governments share their data on spending and contracts. Time will tell.
The benefits are easily summarized: Improved government efficiency and decision-making, more transparency in government programs, and better oversight of taxpayer funds. Those benefits were underscored at the recent data analytics workshop, “Access to and Sharing of Data,’’ sponsored by the Recovery Board, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. The workshop drew on the expertise of officials from the sponsors, private industry, and other government agencies, including the FBI, the Justice Department, the Postal Service, and the Office of Management and Budget. A public report on the workshop will be issued in the next several weeks.
For a system of sharing to develop throughout the federal government, some participants emphasized that consistent data standards were essential. Kathleen S. Tighe, our Recovery Board Chair, said that a uniform award identification numbering system for all government contracts, grants, and loans would certainly improve matters. “There ought to be a standard across government,’’ she told other participants.
As of now, a uniform numbering system seems light years away. Indeed, data standards vary across the government, an issue that limits the way information can be used by oversight entities. Within the federal government, no one agency has the authority to establish data standards for all federal agencies, much less state governments, which provide mounds of information to Washington.
Given that context, many federal IT systems don’t mesh. What does that mean? Well, for one thing, the lack of data sharing reduces the ability of law enforcement and other oversight agencies to pinpoint waste, fraud, and abuse.
The benefits of data sharing can best be illustrated by the teamwork displayed by the Board and the federal Inspector General community. Every month, IGs with oversight responsibility for Recovery Act funds provide the Board with information on fraud, waste, and abuse complaints they have received. The data is run through the Recovery Operations Center, the Board’s analysis arm. The information helps facilitate analysis of fraud trends in the Recovery program and provides alerts to an IG if a counterpart is working on the same matter. As we have reported before, these efforts have helped keep fraud in the Recovery program remarkably low.
But like many things in government, the issue of data sharing is complicated. There are legal and technical hurdles, not the least of which are the restrictions contained in the Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act of 1988. Ask almost any Inspector General, and they’ll tell you that the law restricts their ability to prevent misuse of government funds. Simply put, IGs say, the law provides limited privacy benefits while restricting oversight activities.
Then, there is this issue, according to workshop participants: While federal agencies are concerned about waste, fraud, and abuse, many don’t see preventing and detecting misuse of funds as a priority. They design their IT systems to accomplish prompt delivery of funds and benefits to eligible beneficiaries—not to identify misuse of funds.
Moreover, workshop participants said, some federal agencies take a proprietary view of their data and simply won’t share information with oversight personnel. At the state and local government level, meanwhile, officials often believe they are walking down a one-way street: The feds want the information from them, but don’t want to give anything back in return.
– Michael Wood, Executive Director, Recovery Board