GAO Knowledge Can Help Congressional Policies Keep Up with Tech Pace

May 4, 2021 by Victoria Turner
House members outside the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 4. 2021. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Policymaking is not keeping up with the quick pace of technology, said Marci Harris, co-founder and CEO of POPVOX yesterday. She insisted that the retrospective role that the Government Accountability Office, which takes on government financial and performance audits, needs to be more of a “front-end” partnership in policy-making rather than an after-the-fact assessment. 

Technology “develops at an exponential rate and policy, at best, develops linearly,” she said at an event celebrating the GAO’s centennial anniversary co-hosted by the Lincoln Network and the American Enterprise Institute. Despite working towards the modernization of government agencies and services, Congress has a “[tendency] to not use modern processes and tech for its own operations.” 

“Right now, the GAO is almost having to operate backward,” she charged, noting that members and staffers in Congress have to sift through various, lengthy pools of information instead of having a single source of data “at the offset.” The GAO is and should be that single, reliable source. 

“[The] GAO can help Congress find the facts … They can help Congress bridge the divides to come up with non-partisan, widely-accepted facts that can provide the foundation for Congress taking action…and make meaningful reforms,” echoes Elise Bean, Washington office director of the Levin Center at Wayne Law.

In 2004, after being the key witness in six hearings throughout seven years, the GAO found 27,000 Defense Department contractors had “unpaid taxes totaling $3 billion,” said Bean, and another $3.3 billion in 2005 owed by 33,000 civilian agencies’ contractors.

In 2007, she said it was uncovered that 21,000 Medicare health care providers owed $1.3 billion in unpaid taxes in 2007, just because the Department of Health and Human Services “refused to implement” the Federal Payment Levy Program. The FPLP grants the Internal Revenue Service the authority to seize the unpaid debt out of any government money the contractor would receive. 

The GAO’s audit of federal contractors who got paid “taxpayer dollars” but did not pay their own taxes, she explained, led the executive branch to create a task force to apply the FPLP and the passage of a law directing the HHS to apply the FPLP. Further regulation required anyone bidding for a federal contract to disclose if they owed more than $3000 in taxes. 

Front-end policymaking is particularly important with the “digitalization of the world,” said Tim Persons, GAO’s chief scientist. The GAO’s new unit, the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team, is creating a “toolset for the future of oversight” that is both “immersive” and focused on real-time data analytics and solutions – trying to lessen the “date of response” for action from “days to hours.” 

For example, he explained, STAA compiled data and a tracker on all the COVID-19 vaccines that are funded with U.S. dollars, their “technical maturity,” where they are in trial or dissemination, any issues regarding manufacturing, all with real-time updates from the National Institute of Health.

The STAA is also providing “spotlights,” said GAO spokesman Chuck Young. These are “timely, “action-oriented” two-page, digestible briefs on complicated subjects that can be easily read on mobile devices. The spotlights cover topics like vaccine safety, blockchain, coronavirus testing, and more. 

In the past year, the GAO was asked to review U.S. weapons systems, job programs, the national response to the pandemic and U.S. economic recovery, said Tim Bowling, chief quality officer at GAO. GAO’s work returned $77.6 billion in financial benefits in 2020, which he pointed out was $114 per public dollar spent on the legislative branch agency. Since 2002, he added, it has yielded over $2 trillion. 

These efforts show that the GAO can and should continue to be the “knowledge-based organization,” said Persons.

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