New Year Brings New Recovery Board Chair

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By Andrew Seifter, Good Jobs First

President Obama has appointed Kathleen S. Tighe, Inspector General of the Department of Education, as the new chair of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.  Tighe replaces Earl Devaney, who held the post since the Recovery Act was enacted in February 2009, but announced last month that he was retiring.

As an existing member of the Recovery Board (which consists of cabinet agency Inspectors General), Tighe has demonstrated a strong record of cracking down on fraud and misuse of government funds, so she is a logical, if conventional, choice to replace Devaney.  In a press release announcing her appointment, the Recovery Board highlighted several instances in which Tighe helped win settlements or convictions against fraudulent companies or individuals, including a former City University of New York employee who was convicted for trying to “scam more than $1.5 million in Re­covery Act grant funds.”  According to Tighe’s November 2011 Report to Congress, the case involved a former employee at the University’s Research Foundation who had presented two fraudulent Grant Award Notifications that were discovered by an official who had recently participated in a Recovery Act grant fraud awareness training provided by Tighe’s office.

Tighe also continues to serve as a member of the Government Accountability and Transparency (GAT) Board, suggesting that she will remain a critical player in ongoing efforts to transfer the accountability measures of the Recovery Act to all federal spending.  The GAT Board has been active of late, issuing three key recommendations to the President in December.

As I surmised from reading Devaney’s resignation letter and his final Recovery.gov “Chairman’s Corner” column, one of the GAT Board recommendations is for a uniform ID system for all federal spending projects.  The Board wisely suggests that in pursuing this goal the government incorporate standardization efforts already underway at the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council and the Treasury Department.  The other recommendations are somewhat broader: adopt a “cohesive, centralized accountability framework” to track spending, and reevaluate the methods the government employs to collect and display data.

The GAT Board mentioned one benefit of data standardization, in particular, that got our attention at Good Jobs First: it would “foster a common understanding of data between the Federal Government and the states, which are the largest recipients of Federal funds.”  We’d consider that a huge step forward for spending transparency, based on our experience tracking the Recovery Act.  Although the Stimulus has pushed the states toward improved disclosure, all too often certain information about both spending and outcomes (such as job impact) has been lost in translation as money moved from the federal government to state agencies that then passed it on to local recipients.

We also strongly support the GAT Board in urging the government to “stay on the cutting edge” by constantly exploring ways to make use of advances in technology such as geospatial services.  We’ve seen for ourselves that the possibilities in this regard are far greater than they were years, even months ago.  As the state of technology continues to improve, the bar for transparency must continue to rise.

Many of the GAT Board’s observations and recommendations are a direct result of the Recovery Act, and not just because it provided a powerful model for tracking billions of dollars of government funds.  The Recovery Act also moved the conversation forward by highlighting the limitations of the current system.

For example, the Recovery Act has pressed federal agencies to improve their internal reporting procedures and address problems with existing protocols.  As Recovery Board member and Department of Commerce IG Todd J. Zinser said in November 30 testimony to the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, the Commerce Department met Recovery Act reporting requirements, but only by “performing many manual procedures to compensate for grant and contract system inadequacies.”  Zinser’s remarks bring to mind Recovery.gov Director Mike Wood’s comment last spring that a Deputy Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development told him that HUD “changed their whole management structure … based on how they ran their Recovery program.”

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