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Robert Westbrooks, Executive Director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, discusses how the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee is promoting accountability in COVID-19 relief efforts

Francis: The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) will oversee the distribution of more than $2 trillion dollars from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. A new strategic plan lays out the oversight projects and goals the PRAC will take on over the next five years. Robert Westbrooks is Executive Director of the PRAC.

Bob, thanks for coming on the program. Tell me about the mission, first, that you are charged with taking on.

Bob: Absolutely, Francis. And it’s good to be with you, thank you, good to see you again. As you mentioned today Congress has appropriated over $2.4 trillion in COVID-19 relief and more is likely on the way. There have been over 150,000 deaths in America and 4.5 confirmed cases. Our charge, our responsibility, is to, on behalf of the American people, promote transparency over the expenditure of those funds and the federal government’s coronavirus relief efforts, to identify waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement, and to mitigate risks that cross agency and permeate boundaries.

Francis: When I first read about the establishment of the PRAC, I was reminded of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board, and other efforts. Is this the same idea, Bob?

Bob: Yeah, it’s a similar concept – it’s probably closest to the RAT Board. If you look at the statute, Congress took the recovery act provisions for the accountability mechanism and updated it for modern time. So some of the things that are different relate to the governance structure, so we have the committee itself and the appointment of individual IGs to it and then the appointment of a full-time Executive Director, myself, as well as a full-time Deputy Executive Director. And there are some other changes as well. So, there are some best practices and lessons learned from those days that we are certainly applying in real time. At the same time, times have changed. We are dealing with three times, at least three times, as large a number in terms of spending, we’re dealing with an environment where federal government transparency has changed and improved, certainly, we’re dealing with an environment where individual IGs have their own native data analytics capabilities that didn’t exist back then. And we’re dealing with the time where one of the advantages the Recovery Board had was a senior level, senior official sponsor who was named the Recovery Czar who was a force multiplier in working with OMB and the agencies to effect a lot of the transparency mechanisms. We are building on their successes.

Francis: What has changed as far as the quality of the data you are looking at? I recall that the incident, I don’t remember if it was TARP or the RAT Board, a bunch of data came out, and it indicated that there were 16 Congressional districts in Maryland where this money was going; there are only eight Congressional districts; there was a duplication somewhere. What has changed in the interim 8, 10, 12 years to give you the confidence that the tool that we’ll talk about in a moment will yield the kind of results you want it to?

Bob: Well certainly the Data Act itself and the audits that were called for under the data act by the individual IGs and GAO do provide some degree of visibility into data quality. I would hesitate to quantify my confidence level or the PRAC’s confidence level in data quality. But I think it is fair to say that it remains a concern. There remain to be issues that, I think, with additional guidance and additional system controls, they could be improved. There have been media reports about this where, particularly in the payroll protection program, there have been news stories about the quality of data, with some folks that have been listed as having received loans say they have never gotten them, and the loan amounts were off for others. So data quality will always be a concern and will always be the north star for us that we strive towards.

Francis: The tool that I referred to is called the “track the money” tool – it’s available at pandemic.oversight.gov – what does it do, Bob? Where is it drawing information from, and what do you want people to be able to do with it?

Bob: Great question. So, a little bit of context for us. Congress gave us some pretty aggressive timelines in the CARES Act, so the act was enacted on March 27th, and we had 30 days to get the website up and running, and we came together and did that. They both appointed myself as Executive Director and launched the website. We are limited by the data we get from OMB and the agencies, so right now the data has on it in “track the money” the funds for COVID bills, it is broken up by program areas, and the first set of data that we have out there is contracting data that we get from FPDS next generation, we upload and refresh that data every Tuesday. When OMB issued their guidance on April 10th, very shortly after the CARES Act was enacted, they issued guidance in a circular that said agencies and recipients can largely rely on existing reporting mechanisms, but the first round of COVID identified spending data would be available at the end of July. So we’re looking for Monday to get a transfer of data from USA Spending that will greatly enhance our “track the money” tool. We are also updating our website to look much beyond the government’s spending. So right now if you look at it it’s contract data exclusively and we will be getting the larger USA Spending data set shortly. And the plan moving forward once we onboard and recruit a Chief Data Officer is to identify data sets around the government to enrich the data that we get, we’re not going to rely exclusively on USA Spending and its feeder systems. But in our five-year mandate we will continuously seek to improve and create a much clearer picture on federal spending.

Francis: Bob, stay with me a minute, I want to talk about the game plan for CARES Act oversight when we come back.

Welcome back. Minimizing waste, fraud and abuse in the CARES Act will require the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to use data in new ways. Members of the committee can look back at previous oversight efforts with guidance. More now with Bob Westbrooks, Executive Director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Bob, we talked in the first part of our conversation about the strategic plan and how you are taking lessons learned from previous oversight efforts like the RAT Board and TARP. How are you applying those lessons and what are you using now that maybe wasn’t available for those two efforts or other oversight efforts in the past?

Bob: Absolutely, so last week we issued and released our strategic plan that’s on our website at pandemic.oversight.gov, and I encourage your viewers to visit our site. In our strategic plan we identified four top-level goals that we’re striving towards. It’s transparency, it’s coordinated, comprehensive oversight, it’s preventing waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement, and it’s ensuring effective and efficient operations of the PRAC committee itself. The way we are structured, one of our main directorates is oversight and accountability that we are staffing now. At the same time, we have authority under the law to conduct our own independent audits, reviews and investigations as well as collaborate or provide support to the IGs – one of the lessons or acknowledgements that we have in the strategic plan is recognizing the complexity of federal programs, and recognizing the expertise and institutional knowledge of individual inspectors general, so oversight is being conducted now by the individual IGs, and I would encourage viewers to take a look at what’s going on in places like Treasury OIG, or the SBA OIG – there’s a lot of activity going on. The Department of Justice with their work, doing inspections in bureau prisons, there’s a lot of activity going on. Part of our focus is coordinating and ensuring collaboration across the community. The way the committee is structured there are subcommittees, so there is a subcommittee for healthcare, for example, that spends a lot of time on how they can focus on how they can provide insight now to policymakers on issues that matter and issues of life and death, in many instances. So the next step for us is developing our work plan; Congress was kind enough in the act itself to identify some projects for us to look at. And we will certainly be looking at those projects. There are things that you would expect to be in there, like sole-source contracting, training and staffing, and technology tools available for    the acquisitions workforce, those kinds of projects. We’ll be developing a work plan as we get staff fully on board. One of the biggest lessons, though, is in the data analytics area as I mentioned before, so in 2009, not many Inspector General offices had a data analytics capability and now many of our offices are on the leading edge and have very robust programs. So we in no way seek to duplicate what is going on, we’re trying to find the value to leverage existing resources and develop a centers of excellence model where we’re getting the best of data analytics capabilities and combine them and sharing them around the community as well as bringing minds in from outside the oversight community, we’ve reached out to academia, for example, and we really want to tap into that field. I think there’s a lot of folks out there outside of Washington, DC that have a lot to add here and we really want to crowdsource with the problem of transparency.

Francis: With the advent, the evolution, of the collaboration among inspectors general over the last number of year, this is potentially kind of a new era for collaboration among inspectors general. I’m not sure I recall with either the RAT Board or TARP the high level of collaboration that you are talking about in this effort, Bob. Am I remembering right?

Bob: Yeah, I think you have it right. And I’ve served as IG for the last five years at the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation before taking this job. I am just amazed beyond words at the individual efforts of the IGs, and I think that’s one thing that is different, it’s not only their governing board, but each office is not only doing their normal day job, but if you think about it and you read the news, any of those offices, their missions have become dramatically more complicated and challenging. You take SBA, for example, not only are we all trying to conduct oversight in the times of the pandemic, but the amount of money that is going through the agencies has increased significantly. Sometimes it is new programs that we have to oversee. So the level of cooperation and coordination has been extraordinary from the IGs.

Francis: What does accountability look like? Maybe that’s a more existential than operational question, but is it as simple as catching people engaging in waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement or is there more to it than that?

Bob: No I think there is the three components, I think accountability is transparency, so we have eyes on it, I think what you’re seeing now, we have many, many news stories about people raising issues because they have had access to government data, spending data, have raised issues about whether the PPP program is going to the right people. So I think accountability is really the three branches of transparency, accountability and oversight, and we are stressing insights now and looking at more agile oversight projects to give Congress these clear insights in addition to our more traditional oversight, yellow book standard audits.

Francis: Bob Westbrooks, thanks very much for coming on. It is great to have you here.

Bob: My pleasure. Hope to see you again soon. Thank you, Francis.

 

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