Overseeing COVID-19 Pandemic Response Spending

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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Interview with Bob Westbrooks, Executive Director, Pandemic Response Accountability Committee

Congress authorized historic levels of emergency funding in response to the coronavirus outbreak. This response involved $2.6 trillion in economic relief to individual citizens, loans for businesses, and support for hospitals and other medical providers, as well as economic relief for impacted businesses, industries, and state, local, and tribal governments.

A key part of this effort was the establishment of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the PRAC, which is charged with providing a transparent accounting of relief funds.  

Bob Westbrooks, Executive Director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) joined me on The Business of Government Hour to discuss the mission of his organization and the key activities it is pursuing to achieve that mission. Th following is a excerpt of our discussion.

What is mission and history of the PRAC?

In some ways, it is hard to forget what prompted its creation and yet some much has happened over the last nine months. In early January 2020, the CDC Director received the first report of this mysterious respiratory illness. About a month later, we had twelve cases in the U.S. About a month after that, it was a full-blown crisis in the U.S. with emergency declarations, “stay-at-home” orders, and significant legislation to combat this pandemic.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was one of those key pieces of legislation. It established the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC). It is modeled after the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The PRAC is a committee of twenty-one Inspectors General (IGs) that works with twenty-two other IGs who oversee the activities of federal agencies that disburse pandemic funding.

Our mission is to help ensure that the $2.6 trillion in taxpayer money is being well spent: not being wasted or lost to fraud. We are here to help ensure that the federal government’s response to the pandemic is effective and efficient. We work with Inspectors General to develop recommendations for program improvements, refer matters for criminal investigations, and identify misspent covered funds for recovery.

How is the PRAC organized?

The PRAC is a committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE). It is composed of Inspectors General identified by Congress, Inspectors General designated by the Chairperson of the Committee, an Executive Director, a Deputy Executive Director, and staff. I lead the professional staff of 21 FTEs and a budget of $80 million with a five-year statutory life. We are organized around three lines of business, transparency, oversight and accountability, and outreach and engagement.

Would you tell us more about being the Executive Director of the PRAC?

Since April 27, 2020 when I became PRAC Executive Director, my job has been to set a vision, standup an organization, find the right people to implement that vision, and make sure I engage all stakeholders – IGs, members of Congress, and the public — to ensure we are meeting their needs and meeting our mission around transparency, oversight, and accountability of COVID-19 relief funds.

My biggest challenge is aligning our organizational vision and the pace in which we work. Our mission involves accounting for trillions of dollars; it is a time sensitive, time-consuming, and massive undertaking that could easily overwhelm an organization that isn’t laser focused. From the very beginning, we followed a guiding principle: move forward with the required urgency in a swift and methodical manner. Given our mission and all that is at stake, it is unwise to sprint out of the gate, hire a bunch of people, and a year later recognize that we did the wrong things.

Perhaps you could identify the PRAC’s strategic priorities?

We released our Strategic Plan for 2020 through 2025 on July 23, 2020. The plan identifies four goals. The goals are not mutually exclusive—audits, investigations, reviews, and other activities may meet more than one goal or objective.  Goal one focuses on preventing and detecting fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement by mitigating major risks that cut across program and agency boundaries and holding wrongdoers accountable. The second goal works to promote transparency by providing the public with timely data and information on COVID-19 relief funds.  Goal three focuses on promoting coordinated and comprehensive oversight by facilitating coordination and collaboration, fostering sound stewardship, and sharing data and information. Our final goal is to build an effective and efficient organization and operation.

What is being done to provide the public with timely data and information on the usage of relief funds and the coronavirus response in general?

When the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27th, it contained a provision that required the PRAC to establish a public website within thirty days. Honestly, that deadline was a great gift and we met that as a community. On April 27th, the same date I was appointed, we launched that website: pandemicoversight.gov.

We acquired data from various federal data spending sources and have mapped them. The data is searchable and downloadable. We combine that data with accountability information, OIG audit reports, and investigative press releases. The website is structured to meet the needs of a range of users so they have the ability to download large data sets and do their own analysis. The site contains USAspending data. We have links to other data sources such as the Coronavirus Relief Fund data from Treasury. Our plan moving forward is to identify additional, complementary federal data sources, bring them into our system, map them, display them, make them searchable, make sense of the data, and combine it with federal accountability information so that policymakers can see how relief funds were spent and if they were spent wisely.

What is the nature of fraud, waste, and abuse observed by the PRAC to date? Is it more opportunistic or organized? Does the PRAC have a model in place for the prioritization of applications reviewed for fraud, waste, and abuse?

Based on anecdotal evidence, the fraud is rampant, pervasive, and frankly brazen. Sometimes it is crude. Sometimes it is sophisticated. Sometimes it is small fish. Sometimes it involves international organized crime with very complex components.

In our first six months, we had twelve IGs that were responsible for 241 indictments and 163 arrests for COVID-related pandemic fraud. There have been several high-profile cases. There is a case of an NFL player who was allegedly involved in a scheme involving $24 million in forgivable PPP loans. In the unemployment insurance area, there was a scheme in Pennsylvania involving thirty-three inmates at eight different jails and penitentiaries in Pennsylvania that conspired to defraud the Pennsylvania unemployment insurance program.

In July, the Small Business Administration OIG issued a management alert to inform the agency of strong indicators of widespread potential fraud in the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Advance grant program that require immediate attention. The OIG’s review found indications of deficiencies with internal controls and identified $250 million in economic injury loans and advance grants given to potentially ineligible recipients and approximately $45.6 million in potentially duplicate payments. Details on these and other matters related to COVID-19 can be found on our website.

The complaints for fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement are handled directly by the individual OIGs. We have a hotline on our website, pandemicoversight.gov, and we make sure that complaints get to the right IG. We have project leads working with IGs as part of our oversight and accountability mission. Integral to this effort, we are developing risk models to help us triage and prioritize the complaints. Doing this will help guide the process and more effectively use already stretched resources. We can add value to this process by identifying and using applied technology and building risk models that allow us to use resources more efficiently while being more effective in our oversight and accountability function.

Any thoughts on how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning can help the PRAC meet its mission?

Some of the emerging technologies can be gimmicky. We do not have the luxury of entertaining a technology for the technology sake. The tool must address a very practical problem. We are using data analytics to identify fraud. Now we need to use technology such as AI to shorten the investigative process: to substitute shoe leather for technology. Technology that can make life easier for investigators and shorten the lifecycle of their cases will be our focus. We have to find a way to use AI and machine learning to this end.

What has surprised you most since taking over your current role?

I am surprised, and frankly saddened, as an American, at the amount of fraud we are witnessing. It is commercial looting on a scale that never seen before. Granted, agencies should have done a better job establishing fraud prevention measures for programs, specifically the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). This in no way excuses the behavior of people that take advantage of a crisis.

In a free, democratic society, we cannot get to the place where fraud is just so pervasive that people do not fear the risk of getting caught or the stigma and consequences of their actions. There has to be significant consequence for this type of behavior…there is simply no justification for it in a free society.

On a positive note, I am incredibly proud of work of my IG colleagues and how they have stepped up. These IGs already have full-time day jobs and their work has gotten incrementally more complex. Yet we come together every Tuesday as a community to tackle the many issues and problems we face.

Time is not on our side. We are playing catchup in many ways. The PRAC is a step removed from the agency transactional level data – that point at which you can put in fraud controls to prevent and detect fraud. You can put in rules-based controls at that level and detect it as early as possible. The PRAC is a step removed from that point so our ability to stop fraud in its tracks is somewhat limited. This is the reason we need to work with agency leadership and IGs to strengthen risk management functions within the programs.

What are some of the initial wins or accomplishments of the PRAC?

To support greater transparency of covered funds activity and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we established a public-facing website on April 27, 2020 and launched an enhanced version on September 10, 2020.  In June 2020, we issued a Top Challenges Report to provide insight into top management challenges for agencies that received pandemic response funds, as identified by OIGs. On July 23, 2020, the PRAC released its Strategic Plan for 2020 through 2025 that identifies four goals to carry out its mission and vision. For this reporting period, 12 OIGs publicly reported 141 investigations, 241 indictments/complaints, 163 arrests, and 10 convictions related to the Federal Government’s COVID-19 pandemic response. In the first six months, 26 OIGs issued a total of 89 oversight reports related to the federal government’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

What is your approach to leadership?

Given my experience, there is no singular, “one-size-fits-all” approach to leadership. Leadership is akin to parenting some days you get it right while other days not so much. However, every day is a do over: we get to own our mistakes, fix them, and get back to work. To be a solid leader, you need to be both accountable and resilient. Leaders must also take seriously the context or situation in which they find themselves. I think fundamentally, people want to be left alone. They want to do good work. They desire to be recognized for their efforts. To that end, we practice what is called optimal autonomy. You strive to give staff the level of autonomy appropriate for their level, position, and experience. This autonomy is not conferred automatically. It must be earned.

There are three organizational principles that I instill at PRAC:

  • Get out in front, but not too far out in front that you lose your way
  • Find the win/win whenever possible
  • Do not jump to solutions

It is easy given the sense of urgency to say, “oh, let’s do this, let’s do that”, but a good leader has to have self-discipline and be methodical and not simply jump to the solution without first studying the problem.

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