Flagging Gaps: Transparency and Accountability for Federal Coronavirus Aid

February 2021
Topics: Federal Government Services, Government Agency Operations, Data (General), Policy
With trillions of dollars dedicated for emergency pandemic spending, MITRE’s helping ensure accountability in getting relief where it’s meant to go—including to those disproportionally affected by the coronavirus.
Masked business owner opening her store for the day

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020 (CARES Act), enacted in March 2020, was exceptional legislation. It provided some $2.6 trillion in relief to address the pandemic and its economic impact to Americans. To put it in perspective, the amount is more than half that of the federal government’s entire operating budget for 2020. Clearly, a program of this magnitude takes a monumental effort to execute.

On the receiving end are the real people who desperately need this relief. Those who’ve lost jobs. People hit especially hard by coronavirus healthcare costs. Parents struggling to juggle childcare and pay bills. Those suffering from housing instability, education disparities, and other persistent inequities.

How does the American public know this funding is actually helping those who need it most?

MITRE’s recent assessment for the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), reported by the Federal News Network, helped facilitate data transparency—key to supporting accountability in federal coronavirus spending.

Operating under the Congressionally designated Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the PRAC engaged MITRE to analyze publicly available coronavirus spending data and determine if existing data is sufficient to satisfy data transparency as mandated under the CARES Act.

Leveraging a combination of USAspending.gov, Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and Coronavirus Relief Fund data sources, MITRE found that publicly available data exists to satisfy a substantial portion of the CARES Act transparency requirements.

But our assessment also flagged 16 gaps relating to the three data dimensions of timeliness, accuracy, and completeness that “could impair the PRAC’s ability to oversee all pandemic spending.” And we identified 13 actions ranging from short-term to long-term that the PRAC could pursue to address ambiguities.

Bigger Price Tag, Expanded Efforts

The PRAC serves the public by promoting transparency and coordinated oversight of the federal government’s pandemic response—preventing fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of taxpayer dollars. And we now play a vital role in that mission.

MITRE’s previous work on government spending transparency and accountability includes our 2010 assessment of data quality under the Recovery Act. Within the larger scope of the CARES Act, we significantly expanded on such previous efforts.

“When you compare the $840 billion in Recovery Act spending to the types and diversity of $2.6 trillion in CARES Act relief, the scope for coronavirus aid is significant—and it’s not all visible work,” says Michele Causey, who leads our support to the PRAC.

With relief going out to multiple agencies serving both businesses and individuals, transparency becomes critical. The public should be able to see, for example, that local Company XYZ, which produces personal protective equipment and was awarded $50,000 for job preservation, actually keeps staff employed—even if there are supply or transport delays.

MITRE drew on our sponsor relationships with Treasury, Office of the Inspector General, and the General Services Administration to engage stakeholders.

“Various agencies have different perspectives on whether publicly available data is sufficient to meet mandates for transparency,” Causey says. “The PRAC valued the unbiased, conflict-free assessment we provided.”

Trusting the Data Is Essential

Across the breadth of publicly available CARES Act data, a mismatched zip code or insufficient award description doesn’t seem particularly egregious. But such gaps can create ambiguities that muddy the waters in overseeing spending. With additional coronavirus relief in the works, addressing such ambiguities becomes even more important.

To meet PRAC’s six-week turnaround for the assessment, our interdisciplinary team dedicated long hours and exhaustive attention to detail: from interviewing stakeholders, to reviewing federal memorandum, to scanning relevant media reporting, to analyzing massive amounts of data. The completed report, Transparency in Pandemic-Related Federal Spending: Report of Alignment and Gaps—was well-received by stakeholders.

Under the PRAC’s five-year strategic plan, there’s ample room to further explore the three dimensions of data. For example, dialogue is ongoing around helping Inspectors General with their case management workload for various benefits programs affected by CARES Act funding. Programs such as unemployment insurance and the PPP are particularly important to vulnerable populations.

“Given the diverging interests in today’s political climate, it’s important for assessments to have the kind of independent perspective that MITRE offers,” Causey says. “Throughout our work with the data, we always kept in mind the real people who need this relief.”

by Denise Schiavone

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