Standard Coding Next Big Step in Contracting Oversight

Testifying before a Senate subcommittee last week about efforts to deploy a sophisticated fraud-prevention tool developed through the Recovery Act across all federal agencies, a government official told senators that the "biggest impediment" to successful utilization of the technology is "the lack of a...governmentwide award number system." Adoption of such a system, which would provide a universal code to government contract awards, could transform federal contracting oversight.

In June, the Obama administration announced that in combination with creating a master "do not pay" list, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would roll out the Recovery Act anti-fraud tool at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to test its effectiveness on reducing improper payments. The tool uses "crowd sourcing," data mapping techniques, and regression-based analysis to show potential fraud.

A Scanner Darkly

Now, OMB would like to utilize the tool across the federal government. But, as Earl Devaney, head of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency (RAT) Board, told members of a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee, because "every government agency uses a unique alphanumeric coding system to label payouts," government employees have to "almost hand search...awards to make sure that they match up."

While adoption of a standard coding system would undoubtedly aid federal agencies in utilizing the Recovery Act's anti-fraud technology, it seems that there would be significant additional benefits for contracting oversight and accountability.

The focus of the administration's contracting reform efforts, which parallel its larger goal of improving government transparency and accountability, all hinge on linking information together to provide the fullest picture to the end user.

The difficulty of accomplishing this goal stems from information often being scattered across disparate repositories and the records in those repositories lacking a universal mark to link them together, both in terms of the contract and the contractor. Because of this, good government groups are constantly finding errors with data in, the public's resource for federal government spending.

The Obama administration has begun to link those disparate repositories together, but it has yet to address the issue of better linking the records together. It seems that the government would theoretically solve one side of the difficult dilemma of linking contracting records together with adoption of a standard coding system for contract awards, which would only leave the creation of a unique, publically available identifier for contractors.

Image by Flickr user ryoki used under a Creative Commons license.

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