Recovery Act Oversight - It’s Not Your Father’s IG Office
By Gregory Fess, Esq.
When Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley heard about the American Recovery and Investment Act’s (Recovery Act) Accountability and Transparency Board, he is quoted as saying “It’s fitting that the acronym for this board is RAT, because that’s what I smell here.”
In spite of that rather flip reference to a longtime Washington denizen, it turns out the RAT Board is humming along quite nicely, thank you. The Board was established under the Recovery Act to audit spending by recipients “in order to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse” in the $787B government assistance program. Included in its authority is the power to subpoena private citizens and “conduct necessary inquiries.” (See, Section 1521 of the Recovery Act.) Thus, on its face it appears to be a sort of super Inspector General. But it is much more than that.
The Board is made up of a Chairman and 12 Inspectors General drawn from across federal IG offices, though virtually all federal agencies’ IGs are involved, bringing the total to 29 that the Board works with to coordinate oversight of Recovery Act spending. These clearly are people who are accustomed to doing audits and investigations. But this is the largest federal spending initiative ever undertaken, so the Board has additional powers, including the authority to ask “that an [agency’s] inspector general conduct or refrain from conducting an audit or investigation.” (Some, including Senator Grassely, see room for political mischief in this latter phrase, i.e., using the “refrain from” power to derail sensitive investigations. It’s much too early to tell if there’s any merit in such concerns.)
Whatever one’s suspicions over such broad powers, the most interesting aspect of the RAT Board is not its investigatory authority, but that other aspect of its mandate - Transparency. The Board has a dual mission of ensuring accountability AND transparency in Recovery Act spending. Thus, the RAT Board was directed to establish and maintain a user-friendly website on how Recovery funds are being spent. This manifested itself as Recovery.gov. Admittedly, this website was initially not particularly useful, so the Board stepped back and rebuilt the site, which they dub Recovery.gov version 2.0.
Recovery.gov provides detailed data and comprehensive search capabilities. It displays data from funding recipients and provides access to data in a manner that everyday citizens can understand, including the ability to see details on how money is being spent and even track project spending. Simple clicks of an icon on a state map bring up details about recipients and projects. The site’s search engines let users find contracts by agency, state or amount of award. Graphics help direct visitors to statistics and data, such as the number of jobs created or saved by Recovery funds.
But, of course, data cannot be displayed until it is collected. The Board does this through its FederalReporting.gov site, utilizing an existing IT contract with the Environmental Protection Agency. And as if that were not enough, what federal agency has ever utilized the power of the internet with sites on twitter, facebook, myspace and youtube. All through the work of federal board with the endearing name - RAT.
www.twitter.com/recoverydotgov www.facebook.com/recoverydotgov www.myspace.com/recoverydotgov www.youtube.com/recoveryboard
Gregory Fess is Former Chief Counsel at DOE’s Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant and most recently General Counsel at Brookhaven National Laboratory for Battelle. Mr. Fess is now consulting from his home in Columbus, Ohio with companies seeking federal funding through cooperative agreements, grants and other financial assistance agreements in the science and energy fields.