This is the final installment in a series of columns by Recovery Board Chairman Earl Devaney on the lessons he has learned from his work on the Recovery Board, which oversees the Recovery program.
Having spent nearly four decades in the federal government before taking this job in February 2009, I thought I knew pretty much everything about how the government works.
Then, as the Board and its staff took on the complicated chore of tracking stimulus spending, we discovered the need for a “uniform government-wide award identification number.”
That’s a bureaucratic mouthful, you say. Let me explain.
Government agencies routinely assign an award identification number to each contract, grant, and loan they issue. The award ID is usually alphanumeric, and is supposed to make it easier to track the money. In the case of the stimulus program, the Recovery Act requires recipients to submit quarterly spending reports on their awards.
But wait a minute. What if an agency and its divisions use differing numbering schemes for the same contract or grant? An agency might separate the letters and numbers with hyphens while a division runs them all together. Sad to say, that’s precisely what happens, creating mismatched award entries, and making it quite difficult to track some of the Recovery money. Indeed, this same problem is rife throughout the government.
The solution, it seems, is easy enough: Create a uniform government-wide award identification number. The award IDs would always match and would allow auditors and investigators to follow the money more easily and assist government managers who collect data for finance and budget reasons.
Think about it. Each year, the government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on contracts, grants, and loans. That’s a lot of tax money. A better system of tracking awards would save money, prevent fraud and waste, and improve transparency and accountability in government spending reports. In hard economic times, that makes perfect sense.
The idea of a uniform award ID has gained some traction in Washington but not everyone is rushing into the tent. Some bureaucrats are comfortable with the existing system and are digging their heels in. Oh, they say they want change but they prefer the ol’ Slo Mo—let’s do a series of pilot projects and maybe sometime down the road we can get this done.
That’s rubbish. Most in government know the system is broken. Earlier this year, a panel of Inspectors General from six government agencies reviewed the data quality of Recovery recipient reporting. Their findings were disturbing. Discrepancies between what recipients had submitted to the Recovery Board and the actual award ID, the panel said, made it difficult for agencies and their respective IGs to match recipient-reported award numbers with agency-reported award numbers.
A uniform award ID is essential to making all government spending transparent. Award IDs must be recorded the same way by agencies and recipients of federal monies. Without a doubt, I can say that our work in overseeing the Recovery program has been hampered by the lack of a uniform system. This failing has cost the government time and money. The lesson here is simple: A new award ID system would go a long way toward eliminating bureaucracy and simplifying the process for tracking all federal spending.