Pandemic watchdog to preserve data analysis tools beyond its expiration date

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee began borrowing on what had been working more than a decade earlier last year, when the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board oversaw more than $ 480 billion in stimulus spending after the 2008 recession.

But the PRAC, which will continue to operate until the end of September 2025, is learning its own lessons by overseeing more than $ 5,000 billion in COVID-19 spending.

Aside from the PRAC overseeing more than six times more stimulus spending than Congress allowed to recover from the 2008 recession, speed and urgency were also factored into how agencies administered. COVID-19 programs.

In light of these circumstances, the PRAC, in a report released last month, documented five key takeaways from how agencies disbursed pandemic-related expenses:

  • Self-certified information must be validated before sending payments
  • Prioritize funding for underserved communities
  • Use existing federal data sources to determine eligibility for benefits
  • Beneficiaries and administrations need clear and timely advice to obtain benefits efficiently and accurately
  • Recipients of relief funds must be fully disclosed to the public

Former PRAC deputy executive director Linda Miller, now director at Grant Thornton, said the urgency of pandemic relief puts such spending at a higher risk of fraud, waste and abuse.

“The salvage spending was aimed at trying to recover from a recession, and it was a lot of ready-to-go construction projects that had well-established timelines. It was disaster relief, it felt more like a post-disaster, like a hurricane. The money is out the door quickly, and disaster assistance is inherently riskier, because you are in a situation where, because people are in difficult circumstances, you are willing to lower the safeguards. when it comes to checks, and people are more likely to exploit this bad situation to take advantage of unwitting recipients, ”Miller said.

PRAC Executive Director Robert Westbrooks told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin that the speed of payments also made it difficult for agencies to prioritize funding for underserved communities.

The Small Business Administration, for example, was supposed to collect demographics and prioritize underserved communities as part of the Paycheck Protection Program, but its Inspector General found the agency was not initially meeting those goals.

SBA, however, has made underserved businesses a priority in subsequent PPP spending cycles.

“The initial rules were first come, first served. Well, it certainly gives an advantage to people who have established relationships with national lenders responsible for most of the P3 loans and it puts underserved communities at a disadvantage, ”Westbrooks said.

PRAC seeks to preserve data analysis tools

The PRAC, however, is making sure to do something that hasn’t happened under the Recovery Board – to ensure that its library of datasets and analysis tools still has a place beyond its expiration date.

Miller said the PRAC plans to cede its Center of Excellence in Pandemic Analysis (PACE) to the Board of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, ensuring the committee has a “lasting impact” after its disbandment in 2025. .

The Recovery Board could not find a permanent home for its Recovery Operation Center (ROC), which resulted in the loss of its analytical capabilities after the board was dismantled in 2015.

“For a lot of us in the monitoring community, we wanted the treasury or someone to take control of the ROC, because there was all this existing infrastructure, a lot of data was already there, but no one really had interest or financing to take it back. . And so we wanted to make sure, when we started the PRAC, that we weren’t going to have a similar situation, ”Miller said.

The Government Accountability Office concluded that the Treasury Department had the authority to receive RDC assets after the Recovery Board expiration date. But GAO said the Treasury did not intend to transfer ROC’s hardware and software assets, “citing cost, lack of investigative power and other reasons.”

“While OIGs with the financial resources to do so may continue to replicate ROC tools, termination of ROC may have more effect on the audit and investigative capacities of some small and medium-sized OIGs who do not have the resources to develop independent data analyzes. or pay a fee for a similar service, according to some OIG officials, ”GAO wrote.

PACE, however, is more than ROC 2.0, and has analytical capabilities, algorithms, and models developed for specific types of fraud, waste, and abuse that can be exploited by IG agencies.

These tools allow not only IGs, but also nonprofits and individuals who can alert agency watchdogs to red flags. Former Recovery Board chairman Earl Devaney said in an interview last year that empowering citizen watchdogs helps IGs oversee stimulus spending.

Miller said the PRAC had a similar mission of making agency oversight more evidence-based and more data-driven.

“Being able to harness the power of the data science community as a whole – whether in the private sector or academia or even a student interested in data – PRAC absolutely encourages the use of these datasets, and share whatever has been identified, ”Miller said.

The PRAC report highlights the importance for agencies to use existing federal data sources to determine eligibility for benefits, but the committee is also taking steps to improve the quality of its own data on recipients of COVID-spending. 19.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Congress passed in 2009 required recipients to submit data directly to the Recovery Board, which performed data analysis and also followed up on recipients who had not submitted adequate data.

“The result was a really impressive set of data that the Recovery Board had, and I think a lot of people thought, ‘Well that’s what’s going to happen now.’ The PRAC is going to be created and they are going to have a similar data set to the Recovery Board, ”Miller said.

Less than two weeks after Congress passed the CARES Act, however, the OMB issued guidelines directing agencies to report all CARES Act expenses through existing channels on Miller said PRAC members disagreed with the OMB’s decision, which ran counter to best practices learned from the Recovery Board.

“We thought this was not going to provide the level of transparency that we needed to provide through the CARES Act, and we have raised this with the OMB on several occasions. They felt that the burden of reporting recipients was too great to create a separate portal, ”she said.

The PRAC commissioned a report which revealed significant gaps in the reporting of data available to the PRAC. Miller said the committee conducted its own independent analysis and found about 40,000 awards whose descriptions simply mentioned “CARES Act.”

Miller said the PRAC’s reliance on requires the committee to comb state government websites and other reliable sources of pandemic spending data. She stated that this “quilting quilting process” of extracting data from various sources is still going on at PRAC.

It’s a time-consuming process for an organization that only has about 25 people on staff.

“What we’re really trying to do is come up with something that provides as much data as possible to the public on,” Miller said.

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