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Transcript for Congressional Transparency Caucus Event with the PRAC

Event: Congressional Transparency Caucus Event with the PRAC


Transcript text:

Mike Quigley:    Good morning. Thank you all for joining us today. I'm Congressman Mike Quigley from Illinois's 5th District. I'm the founder of the Transparency Caucus. We are a bipartisan group of lawmakers dedicated to open and accessible government, and we believe that Americans deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent and what the government is doing in their names. I'm proud to share here today that President Biden recently signed into law legislation championed by many members of the Transparency Caucus, the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act. Federal agencies will now be required to share their full budget justifications with the public and make them easy to find, helping the people understand how the federal government is spending public money. This achievement is a step in the right direction, and we're going to build on that momentum to continue to make government more transparent.
    The House also recently passed a bill of mine, the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act. This common-sense bipartisan legislation will make reports that Congress asks federal agencies to complete easy for the public to find and read. That is, it will give the public much of the same access to information from federal agencies that we, their representatives, enjoy. We request thousands of report every year, and it's stunning to me that the public must jump through hoops to read them. I'm glad to be working my friends, Senator Rob Portman and Gary Peters, to get this bill through the Senate so it can join the Congressional Budget Justification Act in being signed by the president. And in addition to those bills, to bring transparency to the halls of government, active oversight is also critical. We must ensure whistleblowers can speak freely about perceived shortcomings or abuses in the workplace without fear of retaliation. Passing new whistleblower protections, such as Chairwoman Maloney's bipartisan Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act is imperative.
    If we want to make the government more accountable to the American people, we must also let inspector generals do their job. Their function is to systematically shine a light into the functions of government and to integrate oversight into the system. This does not work if they're working in fear of their jobs. I'm committed to ensuring that inspector generals are independent, incisive, and fearless in their mission, regardless of who the president happens to be. Look, I've been working on these issues with many of you for a long time, and before, when I was a county commissioner. Two of the last four people that sit in my seat went to jail. Two of the last four governors in Illinois also went to jail. And I think much of what ails us in our ability to function as a government is due to corruption and the loss of trust.
    Indeed, the real cost of corruption is the loss of the public trust and it makes all of our jobs much more difficult. So I'm proud to work alongside my colleagues in this caucus in Congress to pass legislation that realizes these ideals. One of the motivating ideas for the caucus is what the great Brandeis wrote. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman. The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, or PRAC, is providing a dose of those over these unprecedented past couple of years. The federal government has spent over $5 million rescuing a small business, developing COVID vaccines and treatments supporting hospitals, ensuring kids get enough to eat, and much more. It was clear when we wrote the CARES Act, along with an extraordinary policy measure, extraordinary transparency and accountability measures would then be required to ensure that funds reached those who need them most, that we don't waste taxpayer dollars, and root out fraud.
    Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, whom I'm glad to count as a vice chair of the Transparency Caucus, alongside the Ranking Member Comer, offered a provision creating a special committee in the Council of Inspector Generals on Integrity and Efficiency to address funds spent on the COVID-19 crisis, and so PRAC was born. I'm not going to get in specifics about PRAC beyond that, because Michael Horowitz, who leads it and knows it better than anyone, is here today. I know he's itching to tell you about their work. I'm looking forward to hearing from Chairman Horowitz and other distinguished panelists about how PRAC helps make the government more open and transparent, and how Congress, local governments, and our constituents back home can use. With that, I'd like to introduce the co-chair of the Transparency Caucus, the gentleman from Michigan, Tim Walberg.

Tim Walberg:    I thank Representative Quigley. Thanks, especially for all your efforts and your staff's efforts in organizing today's event. And thank you to the panel for being here today and your willingness to share your thoughts and expertise. Congress has allocated an unprecedented amount of taxpayer money in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is critical that we ensure the American public is being served by these funds effectively. At coffee hours and town halls in my district, a consistent concern expressed by my constituents is the oversight of relief funds and the worry that these dollars will end up being used inefficiently, or worse, end up in the wrong hands. I'm glad that we can discuss this in a bipartisan way and hopefully bring strong accountability that brings efficiency and well-used funds.
    I am eager to hear from Mr. Horowitz, who I respect highly, and have appreciated his work over the years in an inspector general status, and our panel. The rest is here to help us learn more about PRAC's work to date, and most importantly, how federal, state, and local entities can utilize PRAC's resources to ensure there is proper accountability in these relief programs. So thank you again to everyone for what I am sure will be a great discussion. And at this point, I'll turn the time over to my friend and colleague, the Ranking Member of Government Oversight Committee, Mr. Comer, for his remarks.

James Comer:    Thank you, Representative Walberg, and thank you for holding this important briefing today to discuss the importance of transparenting government and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee's work to oversee the massive government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a vital mission to help root out waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government's unprecedented pandemic relief spending programs. The Congressional Transparency Caucus has done great work, bringing attention to the need for greater transparency in government programs and working on legislation that enables better oversight. That's why I'm pleased to join Carolyn Maloney as the vice chair of the Congressional Transparency Caucus. Together, Congressman Tim Walberg, Mike Quigley, and I have supported vital governance principles such as open government, making federal laws and regulations more accessible, ensuring clear performance standards for federal agencies, and empowering the public's ability to track federal spending and understand the federal budget.
    Caucus Chair Mike Quigley and I worked together on the Congressional Budget Justification Act and the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act. The Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act, which I'm pleased to say has finally been signed into law, is a long overdue reform to ensure Congress and the public can understand the full scope of the president's annual federal budget request. In July, the House also passed the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act. This bill will make all congressionally mandated agency reports easily accessible to the public and every member of Congress. Last year, Tim Walberg and I helped enact the Taxpayers Right-to-Know Act. That legislation will help Congress and the public gain insight into the government's organizational structure and provide a comparable list of all federal agency programs. Such common-sense legislation will give us the tools to identify and fix duplicative, fragmented, and inefficient government programs. These transparency initiatives are good government solutions that will help Congress conduct better oversight, and the American people better understand what is going on with their government.
    However, Congress must also remain diligently focused on proper oversight of the laws we have already passed. That's why I'm looking forward to hearing from today's panel of experts. This will be an important discussion of the ongoing work across the federal government to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse that we all know exist in agencies, pandemic relief response programs. Since March 2020, Congress has appropriated more than $5 trillion in pandemic relief funding, including 500 billion for the US Treasury's Coronavirus Relief Fund and Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. This unparalleled amount of money and the expedited timetable for distributing funds makes this spending particularly vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse. We have a duty to taxpayers to make sure pandemic relief is being spent properly and administered efficiently. I'm pleased that the Congressional Transparency Caucus has taken up this topic as its first briefing in the 117th Congress. Thank you for your participation today. I hope the insight will help inform the work of standing committees like the House Oversight Committee, on which many of the Transparency Caucus's members also serve. Thank you. [inaudible].

Mike Quigley:    Thank you, sir. I want to thank Mr. Walberg and Ranking Member. Ranking Member is absolutely right. In a difficult time, it is a beacon of hope that on something so critical as transparency and accountability there's bipartisan cooperation, and none of this could have moved forward without everyone's help in that vein. I'd like to bring on Mr. Horowitz now. He chairs PRAC and leads this massive oversight effort. In his spare time, he's also the Inspector General at the Department of Justice. He was sworn in there on April 16th, 2012, following his confirmation by the US Senate. As Inspector General, Mr. Horowitz oversees a nationwide workforce of more than 500 special agents, auditors, inspector attorney, and support staff whose mission is to detect and deter waste, fraud, and abuse and misconduct in DOJ programs and personnel, and to promote economy and efficiency in department operations.
    At PRAC, he leads 22 federal inspectors general that Congress created to oversee the over five trillion in federal pandemic related spending. From 2015 to 2020, he served as Chair of the Council of the Inspector General on Integrity and Efficiency, an organization composed of all 75 inspectors general. He is a giant among those of us who value transparent, accountable government. I'm thrilled to have him here today to talk about PRAC's work. We can all use it in where we go from here. Mr. Chairman, the floor is yours.

Michael Horowitz:    Great. Thank you so much, Congressman. It's great to be here. Thank you, Congressman Walberg and Congressman Comer. The three of you I've worked with personally on oversight issues, and you've been incredibly supportive and helpful to the oversight community, inspector general community. Very much appreciate it. And Congressman Quigley, particularly appreciate the reference to Justice Brandeis' quote. Having gone to Brandeis University I often use that quote, because it is in fact true. Sunlight is the best of disinfectants, as we all know, and that's why this caucus is so important. Let me just start today's discussion by giving a brief overview of the work of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, also affectionately known as the PRAC, which you'll hear us refer to it as. It's comprised, as you heard, of 22 federal IGs. Congress created the committee to provide independent oversight of the over now $5 trillion in pandemic relief spending. To put the PRAC's enormous oversight responsibility into perspective, in 2009, in response to the then ongoing financial crisis, Congress passed an $800 billion relief package.
    That amount is equal to just the current Paycheck Protection Program, one of 376 relief programs funded to fight the pandemic. At the PRAC, we help ensure those programs are run effectively and efficiently. We're there to root out waste, fraud, and abuse, and to hold accountable those who've engaged in wrongdoing. But perhaps one of our most important responsibilities at the PRAC is to provide the public with information about how their money is being spent and whether it reached those it was intended to help. Transparency is core to our mission, and we've created a website, I hope everybody watching goes to it, take a look at it. It allows the public to be citizen watchdogs. It's easy to use. Interactive dashboards gives the power of information to the public. That's how we designed it. It's also the only place you can find over 300 pandemic oversight reports issued by federal IGs, the GAO, as well as 150 reports and counting by state and local auditors.
    To track that much spending that's being spread out across so many programs, we need quality, useful data. And today, the PRAC issued a report, and you can read it on the website,, entitled Increasing Transparency into COVID-19 Relief Spending. And the report details the data challenges we've identified and provides recommendations on how to address data gaps and those challenges. We looked at 51,000 grants across 250 programs worth about $350 billion. We found that in more than 15,000 of those awards, worth about $33 billion, they had meaningless descriptions that made it difficult or impossible to know how the money was actually used. Couple of examples. Over 12,000 awards just use descriptions that repeated the name of the program like Community Development Block Grants or Entitlement Grants. Another 2,500 grant awards were described using only technical jargon, like CCC5-2021. Good luck to the public or any of us figuring out what that money went to.
    Our recommendations make clear some of the steps that are necessary to improve reporting and oversight to minimize data gaps. Look forward to working with the members of the Transparency Caucus and the Congress, as well as the administration, on figuring out how we can improve pandemic spending data quality, as well as the quality of future spending data. And as the congressmen mentioned, there are several bills moving through Congress that can do just that. Separately, we're making sure that the PRAC and inspectors generals have the data and the tools they need to oversee pandemic spending. With the funding that Congress provided in the PRAC, and the American Rescue Plan, and the appropriation subcommittee that Chairman Quigley leads helped with that, we launched the Pandemic Analytics Center of Excellence, we're calling it the PACE, to deliver analytic data and investigative support to the oversight community. We've been able to hire and train with that funding some of the best and brightest data science talent to help inspector general offices analyze pandemic relief data as we're also building out our PACE efforts.
    And I'm excited to share two particular projects from the PACE. One is supporting the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General by applying a risk scoring model to data that's being reported, and that we're using to flag for further review awards that have demonstrated the highest risk. Similarly, we've used a risk modeling project at the PACE to help the Small Business Administration's IG triage the huge increase in hotline complaints they've experienced during the pandemic. They typically get less than 1,000 complaints a year, but they're now getting complaints at a rate of 6,000 per week. The PACE is helping save them time and efficiently look through those complaints by using data analytics to assess which complaints are potentially meritorious.
    I also want to make sure that you're aware that the PRAC and inspectors general are working closely with federal prosecutors and the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to bring to justice those defrauding these federal programs. The PRAC and SIGs have led or participated in investigations that have resulted in over 759 arrests, indictments, or complaints. And to date, we have almost 200 convictions, and we're going to continue working tirelessly to ensure that those who steal from these important programs are held fully accountable.
    Finally, and importantly, from the earliest days of the pandemic, we recognized the critical importance of coordinating with our state and local oversight partners, and the GAO in our efforts. So in addition, as I mentioned earlier, to posting GAO and state and local reports on, we've held monthly listening posts with our oversight partners to share with them our oversight experiences and knowledge, and to learn about theirs. They've provided us with invaluable insights into how these programs are operating on the ground. And that provides me with a perfect transition to introducing today's panelists. And the first panelist I want to turn to is Joe Ferguson, who has recently completed his third term as the City of Chicago Inspector General. Joe has been a tremendous leader in the oversight community. I've been very pleased to be able to work with him over the years, and thrilled to be able to discuss the issues with him. So Joe, let me turn it over to you.

Joe Ferguson:    Thank you. Thank you very much, Mike, and I'm honored and privileged to be here to join this conversation. I will just say generally and briefly that maybe the greatest gap and challenge that exists that we may talk about is how well the locals are connected up to the federal. There's an extraordinary effort led by Michael and others, and with the support of Congress, to actually make both transparency and accountability a key component of systems coming out of the gate from the federal government top-down. But ultimately the money is supposed to reach the ground, and ultimately, it's the local IGs that are on the ground. And how those things connect up, I think, is the place where we have the most opportunity for improvement. But thank you for having me here.

Michael Horowitz:    Great to have you, Joe, with us. Next, let me introduce Liz Hempowicz. Liz is the Director of Public Policy at the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO as it's affectionately known, and Liz has been a tremendous supporter of IGs and oversight as has POGO. Great to have you here, Liz. Let me turn it over to you.

Liz Hempowicz:    Thanks so much. I want to start by thanking Congressmen Quigley, Congressman Walberg, and Congressman Comer, and the Transparency Caucus for hosting this event. The work of the PRAC, and our inspectors general more broadly, is so important to Congress, and it's great to see so much interest in better understanding their work. The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee has done a remarkable job overseeing pandemic relief programs and laying the groundwork to update how our IG system processes in analyzing data long after the PRAC's work is done. But the monumental task in front of these IGs didn't have to be quite so difficult. When Congress passed the CARES Act, we at POGO were overjoyed at the creation of the PRAC and the inclusion of detailed reporting provisions that were meant to ensure that this extraordinary level of government spending would get more than the ordinary level of transparency and accountability.
    But we were quickly disappointed when the Office of Management and Budget almost immediately turned around and defied Congress by ignoring a number of clear reporting requirements in the CARES Act. OMB assured agencies that existing systems to collect data about federal spending would be efficient and sufficient to meet the new standards laid out by Congress, but they were wrong. Our reporting systems for federal spending is broken, and we've known about the problems with it for a while. So we're unable to reliably and systematically answer very basic questions about federal awards, like what exactly were the funds used for? Are programs benefiting the intended communities, particularly those that are traditionally underserved communities? How many jobs did a particular program support? Even where did all the money go, physically? We have data collection that doesn't work, data gaps that leave out vital points of information and whole categories of assistance that we don't even include in the system for tracking federal spending at all. The pandemic necessitated higher than ever federal spending, and Congress is on course to appropriate trillions more towards infrastructure spending in the very near future.
    If we don't codify updates to our systems so that we can collect the right information and ensure that it's complete and accurate, then it's going to be nearly impossible to review whether federal funds are being spent wisely and effectively. Our inspectors general, Congress, and the public deserves better. POGO recently published a report that details exactly how Congress can dramatically improve our system for tracking federal spending, and my colleagues and I are eager to work with your offices on this. Thank you again for holding this important event. I'm looking forward to a great discussion.

Michael Horowitz:    Thanks so much, Liz. Next, I'm going to turn to Dr. Caryl Brzymialkiewicz, who is the Deputy Inspector General at the US Department of the Interior. Caryl's been a time leader in data innovation for our oversight community and has been a true leader for the PRAC in our efforts at data sharing. So Caryl, let me turn it over to you.

Caryl Brzymialkiewicz:    Thank you. My main message today is that we are sharing data and data analytic approaches within our oversight community to build a knowledge base and accelerate the data analytics work at each OIG to increase transparency, assess risk, and make investigations and audits more efficient for our teams. Our team is working closely with the PRAC to lead a data sharing group within our community. I thank you very much for the opportunity to join you all today, and I'm excited to shine a light on some of our work. Thank you.

Michael Horowitz:    Thanks, Caryl. So let's turn to our discussion. And the first item I want to touch on, we've had now about 18 months of experience with oversights since the CARES Act was first passed in March 2020. Liz mentioned some of the issues that arose early on, and with the urgency of the pandemic and the speed at which money went out the door, we had challenges, and significant challenges at times, in ensuring that we not only had the reporting data, but to ensure that there were good practices ongoing with regard to the distribution of the funds. There's still more than a trillion dollars in unspent pandemic relief money. So what are some of the lessons learned over the last 18 months, and how can we apply them to the funds that remain? But also, as we all know, we've all experienced future pandemic... Future emergency issues, hopefully not pandemics, but future emergency issues, like disaster relief efforts that may arise. So what's the takeaway on that? And Joe, since you're on the ground and have the experience on the ground, maybe go to you first on this.

Joe Ferguson:    Thanks. With respect to the pandemic money upfront, there was an imperative driven by the pandemic crisis to get the money to the field, but there was a lesson in all of that, particularly in Chicago, and the experience around the generation and the projection into the public of public health related information as programs were stood up. And what Chicago found was it actually had far greater capacity and sophistication to both compile data at a meaningful level, and actually to render a transparent and user-friendly dashboards, and in that sense, took a giant leap forward in terms of its understanding of its own capacities.
    So as we pivot from the pandemic stage to the relief stage of things, it speaks to, actually, the capacity, especially for larger cities. Speaks to the capacity of standing up relief programs in ways that actually incorporate and integrate all sorts of data and data reporting requirements, both for transparency and accountability purposes. But unless it's done at the front end, and unless it's done with some imperative coming from Congress, fact of the matter is, is that the bandwidth that's consumed by these challenges are probably going to lend people more to the old ways. So this is a real moment to actually incorporate the lessons learned from the pandemic stage into a baseline for future operations.

Michael Horowitz:    Great. Thanks, Joe. And Liz, you mentioned some of the lessons and issues from early on. What are your observations and thoughts about how we go forward from here?

Liz Hempowicz:    Yeah. I think the plans to extend this data analytics capability and shared capability, from taking that from the PRAC and transitioning it to SIGI once PRAC sunsets, I think, is already one of the most critical things that we can be doing. So it's so exciting to already hear that in the middle, we are applying these lessons learned. One thing that I would just, I think, deserves a little bit more nuance, I think. We hear a lot that at the beginning of the pandemic, we had to balance speed with accountability in getting money out the door. Sorry. Not accountability, but transparency, but those two things are linked. And I think there's some truth to that, but I think it's also really critical to keep in mind that we can't prioritize speed to the point where we are blowing past efficacy.
    I think when we talk about programs that miss the intended communities, even in the early days, and particularly in the early days of the pandemic, that was such a critical time. Those are already communities that are, I think, were struggling a little bit more than those that did benefit from programs early on that were traditionally already pretty well served by our banking system, or by whatever federal aid programs already exist. So I think, I hope, moving forward, we will keep in mind that while speed is important in a crisis, it is also so important to keep in mind what the intended goals of those programs are. And to make sure not only that we're structuring programs with that in mind, but that we are structuring accountability at the outset that keeps that in mind. Maybe we can't do everything at the beginning, but we can do more from the outset, I think. And I think that's what we've learned here.

Michael Horowitz:    Great. Thanks, Liz. Exactly. Agree completely. Excellent point. And Caryl, over to you.

Caryl Brzymialkiewicz:    I'd say even though our one federal government data sharing has always been a challenge, each agency has its own purview, and OIGs regularly must work through hurdles to get access to information sometimes. So this is one of those moments that we couldn't just throw up our hands and say, "It's too hard. We can't share the data." We had to figure this out. So shortly after the passage of the CARES Act, we did stand up this PRAC data sharing group that initially reached out to each OIG on what data they needed that they might need for pandemic oversight but didn't have, and then data sharing efforts that were already in place. We started to find ways to streamline the sharing of needed information and make sure everyone in the community was aware of and able to participate in some data-driven projects.
    For example, OIGs needed a few specific data sets. So the PRAC helped gather Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, data and Economic Injury Disaster Loan data, the EIDL data, from Small Business Administration, and it shared it with over 30 OIGs who needed it. And then the Department of Labor OIG also established a process for obtaining and sharing unemployment insurance data with other IGs as well. But it's not just about sharing the data, then, it's also about sharing how to use the data effectively. What are the repeatable methodologies? What are the risk models, what are the approaches? So how do you figure out how to combine that data and identify key risk flags and identification strategies that lead to successful cases?
    So we are building that knowledge base and developing state-of-the-art approaches together, instead of each office then duplicating efforts and painstakingly trying to figure it out. So I would say that just coordination during the pandemic has been essential, and that's what I hope we continue to do moving forward. We've grown as a community with the PRAC to embrace data sharing, working across offices and building best practices, analytic techniques, and tools together. I'd say we're now a stronger community, and we're carrying this type of collaboration and sharing it into the non-pandemic projects as well.

Michael Horowitz:    Great, Caryl, and thanks. You've been helping lead that effort, so it's certainly been much appreciated at the PRAC, and it is something that's been nice to see how it's brought us together. And we'll maybe have a chance to talk about how it's brought us together, as Joe referenced, with the state and local oversight community as well and how we're all talking about these issues. One of the things we did at the PRAC was we released a couple of months ago a lessons learned report from what we've seen overall, and you can read it if you'd like on our website, but just we highlighted five lessons learned, and the three of you have touched on them. First, agencies can't rely on individuals to simply self-attest that they're eligible for the benefits. We saw that in several programs and the result is now there are many fraud cases resulting from self-attestation and that that being the only test to determine whether someone's eligible for a program.
    Second was, as mentioned, making sure that funding is going to those communities with the greatest need for them, and those areas with the greatest need. Third is making sure that you're using all of the existing data to help verify eligibility, like the already existing Do Not Pay system. Four, it's making sure that guidance gets out quickly and accurately to the agencies so they understand how to get the money out, and what the rules are, and how they should prioritize. And then lastly, making sure there is transparency around what occurs, full disclosure to the public of who received relief funds and how they were spent.
    With that, let me ask a related topic, which we've referenced, which is data collection. The reliability of data and how you have both effective oversight and improve program implementation in real time, and what kind of data standards and criteria need to be there, legislated, as well as through the agency. And what have we seen in terms of gaps that exist, and how do they get fixed? And that's a big area, lots of issues, so if we can touch on those. And I'll go back to you, Joe, to start with that from what you've seen.

Joe Ferguson:    Thanks. If I could just do a quick circle back to a couple of things said in the first round, and that is there tends to be a conflation of efficacy and efficiency, and I heard Congressmen Comer speak of efficiency, and that's absolutely right, and it's critical. An efficiency from a federal perspective is often a top-down perspective and the efficiency of getting the money all the way down to its intended recipients. The other thing that Liz mentioned was the objectives of the program. The objectives of the program isn't simply to get money in the hands of people at the ground level. It also has other social policy objectives, economic policy objectives, and that's where the data falls short. That's where you actually need data from the bottom-up that allows for efficacy audits. We're spending an enormous amount of money, and in the context of the emergency moment, it's really important to just get money into people's hands who don't have it. But for a lot of the programs, there's actually an objective of what the ultimate effect of that money is to be.
    And from the bottom-up perspective, there is generally not data gathering of any meaningful measure. So from the local perspective, I would say just about across the board, everything needs to be gathered. The problem there, and now I'm pivoting into the second question here, the problem there is that those that are administering the money at the field level are often not very sophisticated in and of themselves and highly variable depending on the level of sophistication of the government entities that are delivering the money to the entities, the delegate agencies that are getting it into the hands of people.
    And that's where this all falls apart from my perspective, in terms of both the capacity of the federal government to understand this is money that is being well spent, forget beyond the fact that it's getting to where it was intended to get to, that it's having the effect as needed, and generating the data at the level where the local IGs with the knowledge of the facts on the ground, and the communities on the ground, and the nuances of how that works within the context of local government, that is a data poor field. So if all of these things in broad strokes were actually codified as requirements for the receipt of the money by the locals, and there's a requirement that there actually be coordination with the IGs, the local IGs, we start to fill that space that gets us to efficacy as well as efficiency.

Michael Horowitz:    Good point. Appreciate it, Joe. Liz, you touched on this at the outset in your opening comments. Thoughts on where we go from here?

Liz Hempowicz:    Yeah. Yeah. And I just wanted to go to what Joe's last point was. I don't even think he's theorizing here. I think Joe is saying we've actually seen this happen. And then some of the Department of Transportation programs under the CARES Act, we talked about the recipient reporting requirements. Some of those state and local governments took those so seriously, they asked the Department of Transportation to figure out a way for us to meet these reporting requirements even though the federal government is telling us we don't need to. So the inspector general there was able to stand up their own system. So I think just going back to the need for this language to be in statute, but also for the recipients to take it really seriously, because those same reporting requirements were in the statute to apply to all CARES Act funds, and we haven't seen that same data collection.
    But I think I want to go back to the point that you made earlier, Michael. Award descriptions. I mean, this is such low-hanging fruit. You gave great examples, so I won't even try to one up you, but I think to connect it to even to what Joe was saying, not just award descriptions, but sub-award data, because we need to be able to track this money further if we want to answer those questions about did it get where it was supposed to go? Did it have the intended effect, and if not, how do we reevaluate these programs or restructure these programs? It's not just so that we can do a look back and say, "This program worked or didn't," but it's so that Congress can be legislating with the benefit of lessons learned from previous disaster situations, hopefully not another pandemic in our lifetime. But we know emergencies are going to come up, and so we really should take this opportunity to learn now in the moment and figure out how to fix things going forward.

Michael Horowitz:    Yep. No, agreed. And Liz, I'm not going to ask you to take a guess at what CCC5-2021 means. So that could be the next question for everybody.

Liz Hempowicz:    My favorite award description was just for cheese. Cheese. It's like this doesn't tell us anything. How much cheese?

Michael Horowitz:    Right. I won't ask you who or what did that. So with that kind of great data, Caryl, what do you do with that?

Caryl Brzymialkiewicz:    So it definitely, with this kind of money, five trillion is too much money to oversee ad hoc. It does require a comprehensive data-driven approach. So a couple of things that I wanted to focus on. One is just regarding proactive work and innovation. The PRAC has built and shared tools on entity resolution, hotline analytics, and risk modeling, and supported OIG efforts across the community. And OIG's in partnership with the PRAC, our pioneering innovative proactive work and PPP, EIDL, unemployment insurance, and identity theft throughout the collaborations I talked about. But as Joe mentioned, there's always going to be a... The models can tell you one thing, can potentially flag, or as Liz said, the descriptions are going to say cheese, and you're going to need other folks that necessarily... There's a human in the loop. There's also a big push for automation and artificial intelligence, but there's also going to be folks that understand the data and have context for what the data is showing.
    So there's still going to be expertise required to interpret what the models might show you even once you have all the data. But I will say something else too, just for... It's not necessarily low-hanging fruit that's important, but having the ability to be transparent with the data that you do have available. So I know you mentioned it earlier, but PRAC has terrific graphics on the website just about the distribution of those pandemic funds. And then our office, too, developed a near real-time funding dashboard on our public website that tracks obligations and expenditures of pandemic-related funds for each program area. So individuals, nonprofits, Congress, other interested parties have tremendous information at their fingertips about everything from pandemic-related contracts and grants to PPP loans and agency spending. So data helps us communicate quickly and transparently, but it's just a first step, and that it does identify where you don't have enough information or it's challenging to link and follow the full trail.
    So final thought is just beyond the PRAC, something that I'm really excited about too, is what's happening now that I think is going to have lasting impact for our community, is the Pandemic Analytics Center of Excellence, or the PACE. I know one of the conversations that we had very early on was how to help the community long term. It's about how do you smartly build platforms, how do you smartly build data so that you're not duplicating. And some of this work requires taking open data sets that already exist across the federal government or getting the full data set behind the scenes, going through the process of the memorandums of understanding, understanding what those data sets are, getting the analysts smarter about what are the appropriate data elements to match to then get to the analytics stage.
    So what's exciting about the PACE is that it exists, it's going to be amplifying and accelerating some of the work. We do have these working groups devoted to finding these best approaches and then sharing that with the community to do the identity theft, to find funding overlaps, and other topic areas. So OIGs in the PRAC have already had some success in identifying leads in cases as a result. And I think just as this continue, we're going to continue to see more and more of this. So that's what excites me about the PACE.

Michael Horowitz:    Yeah. There's a lot, obviously, exciting for us who are involved in building it. And Liz mentioned earlier, one of the things we've went into this doing is making sure we don't repeat the same outcome after the Recovery Board back when it was created in 2009 and went out of business in 2015 at sunset, the end of the recovery efforts, the Recovery Operations Center, known as the ROC, which was the data analytics platform built by the Recovery Board, it was disbanded, it was broken up. So it wasn't there when this pandemic started to help us, so we're building now the PACE.
    But the plan is, as Liz mentioned, is to make sure this is scalable so that when we're not dealing with $5 trillion of an emergency, but other events that come up, whether it's hurricane relief, earthquake relief, fires, floods, all of the things that create emergency spending, that there is that analytic tool available to us. So very excited to be able to do that, and very excited to be able to do it and build it in a way that will help IGs across the board. And, to Joe's point earlier, figuring out ways to bring the communities together across state and local boundaries so that we can work together.
    One item, a question that came in, but also something on my list to ask about, and it was referenced by Congressman Quigley, is whistleblowers, and the role whistleblowers can and have played in pandemic relief oversight efforts. I was going to ask that broadly. The question came about how important role they played in protecting the 2009 stimulus funds that we've talked about, and they certainly played a critical role there. It's something that we care deeply about as IGs, but before I speak to that, maybe talk a little bit about... Liz, maybe turn to you first on this, at POGO, which obviously is something you all care deeply about and have always cared deeply about and done great work in that space. So maybe speak a little bit to how whistleblowers are playing a role, can play a role, and what we should be doing in the oversight community to foster that.

Liz Hempowicz:    Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I was so excited to hear Representative Quigley start with whistleblowers on an IG panel. I love when there's all these accountability systems work together. So it is really important to consider them together, not as separate issues. And I think whistleblowers, when it comes to emergency spending, when it comes to just everyday government spending, whistleblowers play such a critical role, both inside and outside of government in identifying waste, fraud, and abuse. And I think one thing, one lesson, I think we can take away from the CARES Act and subsequent COVID relief packages is that we didn't actually do what Congress did with the Recovery Act where we gave additional whistleblower protections to individuals at organizations or entities that received federal funds.
    And I think that's a weakness/loophole in the law that still exists, and one that I think we really need to close because I think whistleblowers will still come forward, even if they don't have strong protections in place. They won't come forward in the same numbers, and it's really not fair for us, the public, or for the accountability structures of inspectors general or Congress to expect whistleblowers to come forward and put their lives and careers on the line to do a public service if we're not willing to put the things in place that'll protect them and make sure that they don't have to trade off their personal security for a public benefit. So I think it's really critical. They play such an important role. And I think that's one do out for Congress on this is that I think there's a little bit more that remains to be done when it comes to the protections that we can offer whistleblowers in this context.

Michael Horowitz:    All right. Thanks, Liz. And we've testified at a hearing together on these issues, and I've testified at other hearings about them. The critical role whistleblowers play, whether they call themselves whistleblowers or not, in coming forward and reporting fraud, and they should never, ever, ever be retaliated against or threatened with retaliation. And sadly it happens.

Liz Hempowicz:    As then Representative Mark Meadows said, "Retaliation is almost certain for whistleblowers when they come forward." So we know that that's the case inside and outside of government. I kind of focused on the contractor protections, and the protections we want to give recipients, sorry, for recipients of these funds. But I think we also know that there are weaknesses in the protections, whistleblower protections, afforded to those that work inside our federal government that are also in a really good position to blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse of power within these emergency spending programs, but just normal everyday government spending programs as well. So I was also really glad that Representative Quigley mentioned the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act earlier, bipartisan legislation that would improve whistleblower protections for federal employees.

Michael Horowitz:    And we have on our website at the PRAC a way that whistleblowers, complainants, can anonymize themselves and report anonymously if they'd like to. So that is on our website. Joe, from the local perspective, the role whistleblowers have played and how you go about encouraging people to come forward.

Joe Ferguson:    There's two levels that I always think about the whistleblower. A question, if you will. One is whether there's adequate protections. The second is whether people actually are sufficiently schooled or educated in the things that they should be looking for that are the red flags for whistleblower events. From the perspective of data, what we all do, and we do this in Chicago, as well as the federal government is doing it, is we look for the patterns in the data that tell us there is an anomaly, whether it's an individual actor or component, or whether it's a pattern within a general area of the flow of money. And that's step one. But the folks on the ground, again, it's the folks on the ground that are actually seeing what's going on. And there is a component to whistleblowing in terms of its effectiveness where we all have to sort through suspicion.
    We receive a lot of information. It's not good information. Something doesn't feel right. Quite often, the something doesn't feel right is somebody got something that I didn't get. And that's where we have to do this sorting. What we try to do, and we don't devote enough bandwidth to it, is to go to the contractors and basically say, "These are red flags of themselves, above and beyond what you intuit. These are red flags that trigger your obligation, actually, to be reporting to us as contractors, to go into the communities where the money reaches and say, 'These are the things that we look for.' And if you see, to take us, again, above that, something's not right here and suspicion." So we get better quality information because on the basis of that data analysis and our own experience, we know, really, what we need to be looking for, and we need to help people to know what to be looking for as well.

Michael Horowitz:    Excellent. Excellent points, Joe. Caryl, any thoughts on the whistleblower issues from your perspective?

Caryl Brzymialkiewicz:    I would just say how important it is to have the whistleblower context. I have seen situations, Joe, exactly what you mentioned that... And just from a data perspective, it's easier to train a model to look for things you've already seen than it is to identify the things you haven't yet seen. Or if it's a sophisticated scheme, trying to identify that through data alone. It could be that not enough data sets are yet integrated, or the models just... It's not statistically significant yet. And a whistleblower can really provide insight that the data itself may not. So the power that is combining data that we have and the federal government that we're able to pull together and integrate appropriately, and then being able to bounce that against what whistleblowers might be telling us. So it's incredibly, incredibly powerful to have that context. I think that's been a thread throughout our discussion to have that.
    So I know on all of our websites, we have that bright red button at the top to make it easy to try to get that information and data, but it is that richness of the context of what's going on that can then... I've seen it in previous cases where it's completely changed what the statisticians and the modelers do in terms of their risk models, because of one whistleblower giving extra insight into a situation that helps us figure out the social networking behind it, or something else that they just had not anticipated and had not seen yet, because it hadn't risen to the level of any AI tool telling us that we needed to look there. So it really is incredibly powerful. So that's what I would offer from just a data and analytics perspective about how important whistleblowers are as well in our work.

Michael Horowitz:    Thanks, Caryl. Excellent points. And there's a question about qui tam and whistleblower relator reimbursement. I'm not going to get us into that. That's a legal issue that I think we won't offer legal advice on. So I'm sorry we can't be able to answer that question. I want to go to one other issue that Joe touched on earlier, I talked about, and the congressmen talked about as well, which is the state, local, federal relationship and how we build on that, and what has been to date a tremendous working relationship. I've said this, that I think this event, as terrible as it is, has brought the oversight community together, not only at the federal level, but with our state and local counterparts in a very substantial way. But maybe Joe, turning it over to you. What are your thoughts on how we move forward even more effectively, working together as a community, whether it's on data issues or just the day-to-day on the ground issues and us, the federal level, respecting, appreciating, and understanding that you all know way more than we know any given day on what's happening with these programs.

Joe Ferguson:    We may not know. What we do know is the environment and we do know the players, and we do know the risks from that local perspective. The fact of the matter is, is in terms of bandwidth, in terms of sophistication and capacity, there's extraordinary variability at the local level. At the state level, there's a... You look at a state like California. There's extraordinary sophistication at the California State Auditor level. But when you bring it all the way down to the ground, things become very variable. And the reason that I point that out is the locals need the federal government to give guidance on where their blind spots are. This is what our program yields in terms of our knowledge, and this is what then the federal IGs are prompted to do. That leaves enormous amounts of gaps, both of information that would improve the work of the federal IGs, but also simply things that aren't going to be gotten to by the federal IGs because they are hyperlocal.
    And that begs for me the question of a mechanism for coming together in which the federal component says, "Look. Here's the blind spots and here's where we think you, the locals, can jump in and bring us to this place of working in a complementary fashion." Complementarity. That requires some mechanisms for regular cycles of meetings with locals, but what the locals should be charged with doing and educated to do is to both be force enhancers for what it is that the federal IGs are doing, further reach and further ground coverage.
    And then at the same time, basically be intel for the feds with respect to what we're seeing, that at the local level, we're not going to have the bandwidth to get to most of the time because we're very, very reactive, because usually we're much smaller. And I'm not... Chicago is very, very well-funded and capacitized, at least with respect to the city, but that's not the case for all of them. So that complementarity and that guidance from the federal government with the greater sophistication and knowledge from data analytics actually can bring us into a more comprehensive, holistic form of oversight.

Michael Horowitz:    Thanks, Joe. Liz, we only have a couple of minutes. So any thoughts on that issue?

Liz Hempowicz:    No. I think that coordination is so important. I think, again, it can definitely be aided by data collection with that in mind. And I think that would require some systemic fixes and systemic changes to the way we collect data and the way our system works, frankly. I think even the way we collect and verify data is really important too, and not something we've touched on too much today, but I think it's certainly a part of this.

Michael Horowitz:    Caryl, any thoughts?

Caryl Brzymialkiewicz:    My observation, even across the federal community, is that it's uneven about the capabilities and capacities for data and data analytics. I think there is a further conversation to be had about how do we take what we're doing now with the PACE and leveraging the community. We're kind of trying to raise all boats across the federal OIG community, but I see that as a capacity challenge at the state and local level as well. If we're building up capability, how do we ensure there's not duplication then at the state and local level, that there is appropriate data and analytics sharing that we can share methodologies, because I do think it's... I think, Joe, you said it was the intel collection at the local level, but it's a bottom-up, top-down, how do we combine efforts in a smart way with the capability and capacity. But I think even with data and data analytics, there's such a buzz about building platforms. It's not just the platforms, it's the people and the expertise that can help do this. So how we do that, I think is an ongoing conversation.

Michael Horowitz:    Thanks. So we've got a couple minutes. We'll do a quick lightning round here at the end as a takeaway for those watching who care about transparency. This is the Transparency Caucus event. Do you have, what, 30 seconds on a takeaway to leave people thinking we're moving in the right direction on the transparency front? Maybe I'll mix it up a little. Caryl, why don't I start with you? 30 seconds.

Caryl Brzymialkiewicz:    Again, we're working to increase transparency and reduce risk and data and data analytic approaches are a way to do that. We're really excited what we're doing with the PRACs. Again, thank you for letting me join today.

Michael Horowitz:    Thanks, Caryl. Liz?

Liz Hempowicz:    Two things. One, I would say one main takeaway for everybody would be read IG reports. I hope the staffers watching this are reading them and are subscribed to the Twitter alerts for when posts that there's a new report up, but it's just a treasure trove of information. That is some transparency that was hard-fought, and take advantage of it. And then I think second, I wouldn't be a POGO if I didn't do a plug for our tracker too, so I will drop a link in, but we've also built a tracker to keep... Again, to present this data in a way that's helpful, not just to watchdog organizations like us or journalists, but Hill staff and just members of the public.
    I hear a lot of stories about people going in and typing in their family's names to find family businesses to see if they've benefited from programs. And it really, I think, helps individuals in the public really connect with those federal programs if they can see like I know people who have benefited from these relief efforts, I think, goes a long way. It goes further than you think, probably. Thank you again for hosting this great event.

Michael Horowitz:    Thanks, Liz. And then finally, Joe? 30 seconds.

Joe Ferguson:    Define transparency and what it means for local governments and impose that as a requirement. Define data standards for the locals as well, and these are these things to be codified or written into regulations and require the local governments to actually make all that information available to the-

Page last modified: 11/06/2023
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