Serious Shortcomings in Obama's Oversight of Stimulus Spending

This was originally posted as an exclusive commentary for The Washington Post.

The $787 billion economic stimulus package has raised serious questions about the ability of our federal government to fulfill its basic duties, and will require more than just the close scrutiny promised by the Obama administration.

Hardly a day goes by without a headline disclosing the failure of a federal agency to carry out its mission because it is short-staffed, under-resourced and ill-equipped, or poorly managed. These are conditions that will inevitably worsen as the government is asked to dispense billions of dollars in stimulus money as quickly as possible.

President Obama has promised transparency and intense oversight of the stimulus spending, committing $350 million to this task and thereby ensuring that the first new government hires will be investigators and auditors. He also has named a former Secret Service agent, Earl Devaney, to head the new Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board that will police the stimulus spending.

While necessary, this approach is insufficient.

What's lacking is an aggressive plan to provide the personnel and tools necessary for our government departments and agencies to succeed, and a new paradigm that imagines the watchdog role as constructive rather than punitive.

Smart government should be about getting it right in the first place and investing in the front-end capacity, not discovering problems after-the-fact and then bashing agencies and civil servants for failing to do jobs they were never resourced to handle. The status quo is equivalent to assigning a pathologist to a sick patient who would be better aided by a primary care doctor.

We need immediate and long-term investments in the people of government. That means additional and better-trained contracting and grants managers who make spending decisions; upgrading the skills of human resources professionals; the hiring of workers with critical skills that match the demands faced by our government; and a focus on the development and training of that talent.

We need a commitment to improved management; investments in state-of-the-art technology and systems to enable better productivity; clearly communicated goals and expectations that permit the workforce to be held accountable; and reward systems tied to performance.

The Obama administration so far has given a nod to some of these issues, but it is hardly reassuring. The initial guidance to agencies on the stimulus spending only talked in general terms about employing more acquisition professionals and the need to use government hiring flexibilities, but offered no explicit help or plans to even begin the process of rebuilding the capacity of the civil service to do its job.

Instead, the biggest emphasis is on oversight through the accountability board, inspectors general, the General Accountability Office and, of course, from Congress.

Given the immediate goal of pushing money out the door and the current limitations of the federal workforce, it would be wise for the oversight cops to emphasize collaboration with agencies, to find ways to fix problems and build a strong foundation rather than resort to the customary "gotcha" mentality and blame game.

There is little doubt there will be missteps and cases of waste, fraud and abuse, and they must be handled appropriately. But many of the problems will be systemic and flow from the steady erosion of the workforce.

Take the Department of Energy.

As Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced plans to quickly disburse $32.7 billion in stimulus grants and $130 billion in loans, his own inspector general issued a report citing a personnel shortage in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer that handles funding applications.

The IG said the department has not fully developed and implemented controls necessary to successfully manage an innovative technologies loan program. The financial office was understaffed, according to the IG, without even considering its role in evaluating soon to be awarded loans to the auto industry and the billions of dollars in programs under the stimulus package.

"We recognize that the goals of expediency and accountability may prove difficult to fully reconcile," the IG wrote.

During the past 30 years, administration after administration has deemphasized the federal workforce, placed increased reliance on contractors, outsourced crucial skills and inherently governmental functions, and often demonized the civil service.

We need to use this moment of crisis as an opportunity to rebuild the capacity of our depleted federal government, which is like re-tooling the engine while driving 65 miles per hour. It won't be easy. But if we invest on the front-end to enhance government's engine ¿ its workforce¿and the oversight community serves as a more constructive partner, our chances of success will be greatly enhanced.