The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee began borrowing last year for what had worked more than a decade earlier, when the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board oversaw more than $480 billion in stimulus spending after the 2008 recession.
But the PRAC, which will operate until the end of September 2025, is learning its own lessons by overseeing more than $5 trillion in COVID-19 spending.
Aside from the PRAC overseeing more than six times more stimulus spending than Congress authorized to recover from the 2008 recession, speed and urgency have also played a role in agencies’ management of COVID-19 programs.
In view of these circumstances, the PRAC in a report from last monthdocumented five key takeaways from government spending on pandemic spending:
- Self-certified information must be validated before payments are sent
- Prioritize funding for underserved communities
- Use existing federal data sources to determine benefit eligibility
- Beneficiaries and administrations need timely and clear guidance to receive benefits efficiently and accurately
- Recipients of aid funds should be fully disclosed to the public
Former PRAC Deputy Executive Director Linda Miller, now a director at Grant Thornton, said the urgency of pandemic relief put that spending at greater risk of fraud, waste and abuse.
“Recovery spending was trying to recover from a recession and there were many shovel-ready construction projects with firmly established timeframes. That was disaster relief, that was more of a post-disaster, like a hurricane. The money went out the door fast, and disaster relief is inherently riskier because you’re in a situation where you’re willing to lower the guard rails when it comes to controls, because people are in dire circumstances, and people are more willing to take advantage of this bad situation to take advantage of unwitting recipients,” Miller said.
PRAC Executive Director Robert Westbrooks said that Federal Drive with Tom Temin that the speed of payments also made it difficult for authorities to prioritize funding for underserved communities.
For example, the Small Business Administration should collect demographic data and prioritize underserved communities as part of the Paycheck Protection Program, but that’s not the case The inspector general noted that initially the agency was not to achieve these goals.
SBA however made underserved businesses a priority in subsequent rounds of PPP issues.
“The initial rules were: first come, first served. Well, that certainly gives an advantage to people who have developed relationships with national lenders that have been responsible for most PPP loans, and it disadvantages underserved communities,” Westbrooks said.
The PRAC strives to obtain data analysis tools
But the PRAC is making sure it’s doing something it didn’t do under the Recovery Board – making sure its library of datasets and analysis tools still have a home after the date has passed.
Miller said the PRAC plans to rotate his Center of Excellence for Pandemic Analytics (PACE) submitted to the Board of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency to ensure the committee has “lasting effect” after its dissolution in 2025.
The Recovery Board failed to find a permanent home for its Recovery Operation Center (ROC), resulting in the loss of analytical capabilities when the Board disbanded in 2015.
“For a lot of us in the regulatory community, we wanted Treasury or someone to take over the ROC because there was all this infrastructure in place, a lot of the data was already in place, but nobody really had the interest or funding to take it on. So when we set up the PRAC, we wanted to make sure we didn’t find ourselves in a similar situation,” said Miller.
the Government Accountability Office found The Treasury had authority to receive ROC assets after the Recovery Board expiry date. But GAO said the Treasury Department has no plans to transfer ROC’s hardware and software assets “citing cost, lack of investigative powers and other reasons.”
“While OIGs with the financial resources to do so may seek to replicate the ROC tools, the termination of the ROC could have a greater impact on the audit and investigative capabilities of some small and medium-sized OIGs that do not have the resources to develop independent data analysis or Pay fees for a similar service, according to some OIG officials,” GAO wrote.
However, PACE is more than just ROC 2.0 and has analytics, algorithms and models designed for specific types of fraud, waste and abuse for use by agency IGs.
These tools not only empower IGs, but also nonprofits and individuals who can alert government watchdogs about red flags. Former Recovery Board Chairman Earl Devaney said in one interview last year that strengthening vigilantes helped IGs oversee stimulus spending
Miller said the PRAC has a similar mission, which is to make agency oversight more evidence-based and data-driven.
“Being able to unlock the power of the data science community at scale—be it in the private sector or in academia, or even as a college student interested in the data—PRAC strongly encourages use of these records and to share everything,” Miller said.
The PRAC report emphasizes the importance of agencies using existing federal data sources to determine eligibility, but the committee is also taking steps to improve the quality of its own data on COVID-19 payees.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Congress, passed in 2009, required recipients to submit data that went directly to the Recovery Board, which conducted data analysis and also followed up on recipients who failed to submit appropriate data.
“The result was a really impressive record that the recovery board had, and I think a lot of people were like, ‘Well, that’s going to happen now. The PRAC will be set up and it will have a similar dataset to the Recovery Board,” Miller said.
However, less than two weeks after Congress passed the CARES Act, the OMB issued a policy directing agencies to report all CARES Act spending through existing channels on USASpending.gov. Miller said PRAC members disagreed with OMB’s decision, which went against best practices learned from the Recovery Board.
“We felt that this would not provide the level of transparency that we would require through the CARES Act and we have raised this with OMB on a number of occasions. They felt the reporting burden was too great for recipients to create a separate portal,” she said.
The PRAC commissioned a report which identified significant reporting gaps in the data available to the PRAC. Miller said the committee conducted its own independent analysis and found about 40,000 awards with descriptions that just said “CARES Act.”
Miller said the PRAC’s reliance on USASpending.gov required the committee to scour state government websites and other sources of reliable data on pandemic spending. She said this “patchwork quilting process” of pulling data from a variety of sources is still ongoing at the PRAC.
It’s a time-consuming process for a company with only about 25 employees.
“What we’re really trying to do is cobble something together that will get as much data public on PandemicOversight.gov as possible,” Miller said.