Stimulus Spending Challenges Federal Watchdog

While some learning organizations are grappling with the challenges inherent in today’s "do more with less" environment, others have the opposite problem: how to handle the flow of cash created by the economic stimulus package.

While some learning organizations are grappling with the challenges inherent in today’s “do more with less” environment, others have the opposite problem: how to handle the flow of cash created by the economic stimulus.

Last month, the U.S. Congress passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus package, to support the flagging U.S. economy. The legislation mandated billions of dollars of spending and tax cuts for federal, state and local government agencies, and included $330 million to fund oversight of stimulus funds.

Earl Devaney, tapped by President Obama to head the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency board, recently said that fraud typically accounts for 7 percent of large government contracts. Tasked with putting in place measures to prevent fraud, the RAT board, as it’s now commonly known, is made up of inspectors general from government agencies.

With the breadth of stimulus spending on the table, the potential for fraud equates to $55 billion, Devaney said. Add in the push to rapidly disburse stimulus money and get it into the hands of the agencies charged with carrying out projects, and you have a challenging oversight scenario.

“What he’s trying to do is help people stay focused on the fact that when speed and accountability run up against each other, it gets to be real challenging,” said Carol Willett, chief learning officer for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Part of the role and responsibility of the RAT board, as is that of GAO, is to provide guidance, but also oversight to those doing the spending to try and make sure that the money is being used for the best possible purpose and in the way it was intended.”

Willett said GAO, an independent, nonpartisan agency authorized by Congress to keep tabs on federal expenditures, received $25 million under the stimulus act to fund oversight in 16 states and the District of Columbia, monitor expenditure reports from all 50 states, conduct forensic audits and special investigations and put in place ways to avoid fraud, waste and abuse.

That $25 million has created a high-profile opportunity along with a significant challenge for GAO, and for other government agencies receiving stimulus money.

“This is a rare opportunity for leaders who have a clear vision of what matters most to implement their plans in less than 24 months rather than having to wait for incremental and sporadic funding,” Willett said. “It’s also an opportunity to show the enterprises we serve how we can help meet surge requirements in a timely way.”

GAO is planning to re-hire some auditors, but also find ways to promote knowledge sharing in order to meet the increased demand for oversight.

“Our motto is, ‘Learn it. Do it. Teach it,’” Willett said. “We are doing all we can to facilitate knowledge transfer among our auditors, our colleagues in the state and local audit communities, our partners in the inspector general community and the experts in data services, economic analyses, simulation modeling and surveys we may need to tap between now and Sept. 30, 2010 [the date when stimulus funding runs out].

“We will all learn from this experience, not just about how to follow the money, but how to form and sustain new relationships and partnerships on the fly as we meet the act’s requirements. It’s going to be a highly collaborative effort and one that will stretch everyone involved.”

For learning organizations, a clear long-term vision, plan and structure is essential to successfully meeting the challenges brought on by the increased spending.

“It’s awfully seductive when you’ve got a lot of dollars dangled in front of your nose to forget where it was you were originally heading and just go for the glitz,” Willett said. “That would be a very short-sighted view of how to use this money. It’s a rare opportunity for learning leaders to make investments as opposed to simply spend.

“The challenge is that you must have some capacity in order to build more capacity. Investing, as opposed to merely spending, money takes time, attention, talent, infrastructure and consensus. Freeing up the time and attention, recruiting or borrowing the talent, creatively working with the existing infrastructure and using all your skills to build organizational consensus around what you are doing — those are the biggest challenges we face.”