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
Transparency advocates would like to see the government do a better job tracking federal spending, which reached $3.6 trillion in fiscal 2011. They may soon get their wish. In a recent vote, the House of Representatives approved a bill requiring the government to clearly show how and where taxpayers’ money is being spent.
Quite simply, say proponents of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2012, or DATA Act, the vote represents a major step forward in efforts to bring full transparency to government spending. Or, as Rep. Dennis Ross, R-FL, a strong proponent of the bill, put it during debate: “The DATA Act finally does what America wants: Opens up the books of government and lets the taxpayers see what is being spent….This common sense, bipartisan bill will bring much needed accountability and transparency to federal spending.”
The DATA Act is designed to build on the successes of the Recovery Board. Under the $840 billion Recovery program, the Board collects data from recipients of contracts, grants and loans and displays detailed spending information on its website, Recovery.gov. Proponents were quick to applaud the Board’s dedication to transparency and accountability.
“The DATA Act … will literally track those trillions of dollars in a way not done outside the Recovery Act,’’ Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, the driving force behind the legislation, said during the debate. “Quite frankly, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Recovery Board for showing us an effective system on which we could build.’’
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-MD, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where the legislation was born, praised the Board for its successful oversight program. Under its watchful eye, he said, “the Recovery Act had historically low levels of waste, fraud, and abuse.’’
The DATA Act would replace the Recovery Board with a new, independent five-member commission to collect and display spending information for all government agencies on a single public website. The panel members, to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, would also be responsible for ensuring that government funds are not stolen or wasted.
The fate of the DATA Act now rests with the Senate. Amendments are likely, and no one knows if the legislation will be adopted. But it is clear that the idea has a lot more supporters now than it did when Rep. Issa and Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, first proposed the measure last year.
– Michael Wood, Executive Director, Recovery Board
We’ve received many emails asking whether Social Security recipients, veterans, and railroad retirees will receive a $250 payment in 2011, as they did in 2009.
Answer: In July 2010, a new bill was introduced that would provide the one-time $250 in 2011 in the event that no Social Security cost-of-living adjustment is payable next year.
In October 2010, the Social Security Administration announced that there would be no cost-of-living increase in 2011. Some members of Congress are seeking a vote on the bill introduced in July before the end of the year.
Check back for updates.
Tax credits and benefits make up $288 billion of the $787 billion allocated by the Recovery Act. See if you might qualify for any of these tax credits:
College expenses – The American Opportunity Credit modifies the existing Hope Credit for tax years 2009 and 2010, making the Hope Credit available to a broader range of taxpayers. It also adds course materials to the list of qualifying expenses and allows the credit to be claimed for four post-secondary education years instead of just two. Many of those eligible will qualify for the maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student.
Energy-efficient improvements — The Residential Energy Property Credit increases the credit rate to 30 percent of the cost of improvements, such as added insulation, energy efficient exterior windows, and energy-efficient heating and air conditioning systems. The maximum credit limit is $1,500 for improvements made in 2009 and 2010. Frequently asked questions about the program are listed on the Energy Star website.
Alternate energy equipment installation – If you install solar hot water heaters, geothermal heat pumps or wind turbines at your home, you might qualify for the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit that allows for a credit equal to 30 percent of the cost of the qualifying equipment’s installation.
Working Individuals and Families – If you make a low to moderate income and file a tax return, you could qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Parent(s) with children – If the amount of your Child Tax Credit is greater than the amount of income tax you owe, you may be able to claim the Additional Child Tax Credit.
Working Individuals — Making Work Pay provides for a refundable tax credit of up to $400 for working individuals and up to $800 for married taxpayers filing joint returns.
We’ll be keeping you up to date on any additional tax credits and changes to those listed here.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) established the Recovery Board to promote transparency in the spending of the $787 billion in stimulus money and to ensure accountability in the way the money was used to fund jobs and stimulate the American economy. The Board promotes transparency through Recovery.gov, portraying in simple language how the Recovery funds are awarded and spent, the progress of projects, and jobs funded. Overall transparency in government spending and programs has a number of benefits:
- The public knows what the government is doing with their tax dollars – for example, Recovery tax benefits are described in a simple chart with detailed narrative descriptions;
- Citizens can interact with government officials to influence decisions in a collaborative manner – descriptions of each award are displayed by the website’s mapping capabilities giving the press and public the information to question Congress, the Administration, and state and local governments regarding the value of these efforts;
- With the information on projects and awards, the public can track the progress on the ground where funds are being spent – the awards in each local community can be identified using a zip code search;
- Information on opportunities is readily available – for example, there are two job search capabilities and links to information on available grants and contracts;
- Compliance and self-correcting behavior —all reports filed by those receiving funds are displayed and those who fail to report are named on Recovery.gov. In evaluating the relatively small number of award recipients who have not reported as mandated by the Act, it is obvious that the public nature of reporting and the open availability of the data do indeed foster compliance and self-correcting behavior.
The Board’s active accountability efforts in association with the transparency of the Recovery program indicate that the level of fraud, waste, and abuse are relatively low to date.
The new Developer Center on Recovery.gov gives complete, machine-readable access to the data reported by recipients of Recovery awards. Anyone interested in creating widgets, apps, or other mashups with Recovery data can now do so using the Recovery API. We’ve also made it easier for people and organizations to post Recovery data on their own websites through our two widgets – one displaying State Data Summary, the other an Advanced Search Widget that allows in-depth data searches.
Also provided in the Developer Center are 3rd-party widgets and apps. ESRI, the mapping software company collaborating with Recovery.gov to deliver many of the maps you see in the Map Gallery, offers their ArcGIS API. Sunlight Labs has developed an app for mobile devices that allows you to view Recovery projects in your vicinity.
We hope the resources and ideas in our new Developer Center inspire you to create Recovery data apps and widgets. Please share your thoughts and ideas with us!