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HHS Watchdog Is Able to Hire Again After Losing 200 Under Sequestration

The IG is looking for data analytics wizards.

The data-crunching team at the Health and Human Services Inspector General’s Office lost 200 employees under sequestration, but the push is on now to hire data analytics wizards from society’s growing population of “citizen data scientists.” 

During tight budgetary times, “It’s not gadgets that get squeezed, it’s the people,” said Caryl Brzymialkiewicz, the watchdog’s first chief data officer, on Wednesday at a Government Analytics Breakfast at the Johns Hopkins University Washington office sponsored by REI Systems.

A data engineer who has worked for the Homeland Security Department, the Army and the Navy, Brzymialkiewicz described her office’s transition from a “compliance-focused” mission to leadership role in providing the inspector general’s decision-makers with customized, accessible and trustworthy digital tools.

The 1,600 employees at the HHS IG include auditors, evaluators, legal counsel and investigators, who all need modernized data clearly presented to help them spot patterns in, say, Medicare billing records that suggest possible fraud against HHS’s $1 trillion claims portfolio. Brzymialkiewicz’s team can help the IG, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Justice Department reduce improper payments through such tools as maps that allow easy visualization of fraud “hot spots” in zip codes in such problem localities as Detroit and Miami.

“When I arrived in April 2015, I thought I’d be doing enterprise data management,” Brzymialkiewicz said. But the job turned out to be a platform for “new opportunities for data analysis” and creating new tools for sharing and enabling other functions. “It’s a different way of work planning,” she said, noting that she helps her bosses with data from both the external world and internal agency matters—such as documenting for the human resources office that 40 percent of the IG organization is likely to retire in next four years.

“People receive information in different ways,” she said, noting that some of her beneficiaries—such as streetwise investigators—“roll their eyes when you show them an Excel file.” So the goal in creating predictive analytical tools, data visualizations and data mining dashboards using tables or charts is to make “the message pop” for different types of users.

 “We’re not the ones who make the final call, so we try to create a trusting environment, so they trust the data and can then have that difficult conversation” about whether to pursue possible criminal behavior, and whether the key to progress would involve changes in agency approaches, new regulations or legislation, Brzymialkiewicz said.

“I’m an engineer but I also have blind spots, so I pull in social workers and health care workers” to mold data in forms that auditors or evaluators can adapt to their own standards.

Congress, of course, wants Brzymialkiewicz’s office to demonstrate that its budget dollars have an impact on reducing fraudulent payments over time. So her team uses analytics in line-graph form to facilitate a discussion of whether correlation is causation.

The HHS IG’s data office “has a petabyte of storage,” which means plenty of room for keeping back data if top executives see value there. (It is also preparing to move storage to the cloud.)

“We ask executives, ‘What data do you need, when would it inform your decision?’ ” Brzymialkiewicz added, noting that the data systems when she arrived were “disconnected, not centralized and not easy.”

After a data project is delivered, she said, she encourages top management to perform a feedback loop to evaluate methods, for “building the muscle memory of what should happen.”

Proud that her office earned HHS’s top ratings in the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey, Brzymialkiewicz offered the audience of data-oriented agency employees and graduate students some career advice. “Don’t burn bridges—you may need those people later,” she said. “Honor your sponsors and come to work every day willing to be fired.”

Three times in her career, she said, she nearly got crossways with a boss because she aggressively interpreted her data rather than leave the talking to the higher-ups. The Senior Executive Service, Brzymialkiewicz added, values people with multi-agency experience. “Go where others don’t want to go.”

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