Historic Effort to Track Stimulus Spending Wraps Up

Recovery board members are sworn in to testify at a congressional hearing on accountability and transparency efforts in 2011. Recovery board members are sworn in to testify at a congressional hearing on accountability and transparency efforts in 2011. Recovery.gov

On Sept. 21, Internet access was halted at the high-security Recovery Operations Center — the government’s most groundbreaking anti-fraud unit — housed in the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board offices, kitty-corner to the White House.

The board, set up in April 2009 to track itemized spending of what became an $840 billion economic stimulus package disbursed by 29 agencies, will shut its doors for good on Sept. 30.

The staff of detailees that once topped 80 was down to fewer than 10 in the final week after peeling back to their previous agencies, according to Alice Siempelkamp, the Recovery Board’s director of Web operations.

Siempelkamp spoke in a boardroom where half a dozen agency seals for the member inspector generals have been removed from the wall. “It’s an incredible location at the heart of everything,” she said.  Earl Devaney, the first chairman of what is affectionately called the RAT Board, had requested the prime real estate to ease his frequent visits to the offices of Vice President Joe Biden, she added.

(The General Services Administration plans to remodel the space to house the 2016 presidential candidates in accordance with the 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act.) 

When Devaney, a 41-year government veteran and the Interior Department inspector general, was appointed chairman in March 2009, he called the project “the Super Bowl of Oversight.” But even after six years (which include an extension from the original September 2013 expiration date to cope with Hurricane Sandy spending), “we’re always explaining to those in and out of government what we do,” Siempelkamp said. “Surprisingly, it’s not as well-known among the agencies, except for in the IG community.” Inspectors general have made the greatest use of the anti-fraud sleuthing by open-source database detectives in the Recovery Operations Center.

During its final month, the Recovery Board trumpeted its accomplishments in a press release:

  • Nearly 3,200 audits, inspections and other reviews by inspectors general whose agencies had received Recovery funding.
  • Recommendations for better use of funds totaling $8 billion, and questioned costs totaling $5 billion.
  • Recovery Board-related probes by inspectors general resulting in 1,665 convictions, pleas and judgments, and more than $157 million in recoveries, forfeitures, seizures and estimated savings.
  • 14 awards, including a Gold Addy Award from the Ad Club of Metropolitan Washington and Best Government Website.

The Recovery Board’s road, however, was sometimes rocky. Early versions of its data collection and reporting websites were ridiculed when citizens and reporters found multiple errors and 440 nonexistent congressional districts where jobs were supposedly created or saved due to stimulus spending.

A Mitre Corp. analysis of Recovery.gov and FederalReporting.gov warned of a shortage of qualified federal personnel to manage data collection and presentation. “We believe this effort to be extremely high risk,” the report said. “The current state of the management and acquisition models, along with the high expectations and short timeframe in which to deliver, are the fundamental constraints which create this high-risk environment.”

Siempelkamp, one of the board’s first staffers in April 2009, recalled that “we built Reporting.gov from scratch, working long hours. We then built Recovery.gov from scratch in 12 weeks, when it would usually eight to 12 months. There was no real infrastructure,” she noted. “Our crisis was not the economic crisis, but following the law and making sure we could be ready by Oct. 1, 2009,” which is the deadline the Office of Management and Budget set for the board’s first batch of reporting.

In that first quarter, FederalReporting.gov collected more than 130,000 prime and sub-recipient grant reports and related performance indicators. Results were displayed on Recovery.gov by Oct. 30 — the first of 17 consecutive quarterly reporting deadlines the board met.

Through innovative software and design that structures data in search of patterns, Recovery.gov became a model. It was the first governmentwide financial system to move to a cloud infrastructure. President Obama hailed it in a 2011 executive order creating the Government Accountability and Transparency Board to manage oversight of all spending. Congress also cited Recovery.gov while writing what became the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

Siempelkamp, who’s now helping apply the board’s techniques at USASpending.gov, cites major law enforcement victories won by IGs using referrals from the Recovery Board:

  • 28 fraudulent Medicare providers caught operating out of empty buildings in Miami.
  • An employee of the Housing and Urban Development Department buying properties with agency funds and selling them for a profit.
  • Businesses owners falsely claiming to be service-disabled veterans.
  • Grant money recorded as being sent to an address that local citizens reported as an empty shed.

The Government Accountability Office also praised the Recovery Board’s use of data analytics in a September 2015 report, but revealed disappointing news for the board’s veterans. 

Months earlier, the Treasury Department — which was thought to be absorbing spending-tracking hardware and software from the Recovery Board’s operations center — had decided not to take over those data analytics tools because the hardware is aging and such a transfer would not be cost-effective. Treasury also declined to guarantee hiring of Recovery Board personnel to help with the transition. Instead, Treasury opted to consult with Recovery Board experts in the framework of Treasury’s Do Not Pay initiative aimed at curbing improper payments governmentwide.

GAO recommended that the Recovery Board’s tools be considered by the Council of the Inspectors General for Efficiency and Integrity. “Our talks with Treasury showed that if they want the Recovery Operations Center, they can get it, but Treasury doesn’t have its law enforcement authority,” Siempelkamp said. “We hope lessons learned and best practices we implemented extend beyond the board. We’ve always referred to it as an experiment, and we felt we have been involved in a historic step for transparency and accountability in the federal government.”

The Recovery Board is closing down with bipartisan support. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., though not a supporter of the stimulus package, this week told a data transparency conference that — despite some early embarrassing press reports and the need for corrective actions — the Recovery Board was a major milestone in  government transparency.

“It was the capstone of my career,” Devaney told Government Executive this month. “It was an opportunity to use all of my past work on fraud prevention and try it at a scale I never imagined.”

The final chairman of the RAT Board, Education Department Inspector General Kathleen S. Tighe, said in a statement, “It has been an honor to have been a part of the Recovery Board and to have had a hand in ushering in a new era of government transparency and accountability . . . Working with our inspectors general and other law enforcement partners, we also set a new standard for accountability of federal spending by combining new technologies with open source and other data in a powerful analytical platform to identify areas of risk and target audit and investigative work. I am very proud of what the Recovery Board was able to achieve and deliver for America’s taxpayers.”

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