Modernizing oversight to improve government efficiency and accountability

While impeachment hearings and the 2020 election dominate the political headlines, several encouraging bipartisan efforts to reform Washington and improve governance are making progress below the radar. The result could be billions in taxpayer savings.

This month, the House of Representatives extended the Select Committee on the Modernization of the Congress, a bipartisan panel led by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) charged with identifying ways to help the legislative branch work effectively again. The Committee has already proposed a series of bipartisan reforms and will now have another year to work.

A promising effort is also underway within the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), which serves as Congress’s watchdog. GAO recently established an Innovation Lab within its Science, Technology Assessment and Analytic team.

I recently interviewed the team’s Chief Data Scientist Taka Ariga about how data analytics will modernize the auditing process.

“In an increasingly digital world, the proliferation of data represents a transformative opportunity for auditors to be more anticipatory and less reactionary,” Ariga explained. “The nexus of scalable computational power and innovative data science techniques enables analyses based on 100% of the data instead of a more traditional, sample-based approach. In turn, we can accelerate the speed and depth at which we identify, consume, and act on patterns, behaviors, correlations, and anomalies.  Through the Innovation Lab, we want data science to be the catalyst within GAO that not only help discover deeper insights with greater efficiencies, but also propel more prospective views on near-term risks.”

GAO’s audits and recommendations identify opportunities for Congress and federal agencies to improve government efficiency and management. For example, GAO calculated that its annual reports on duplication across federal programs have helped taxpayers save $260 billion

The office’s watchdogs also regularly identify security vulnerabilities within federal programs and present recommendations to Congress and agencies to improve public safety and well-being.

As a former Congressional committee staffer, I saw firsthand how important GAO’s audits and recommendations are for informing the legislative and oversight process. Facts gathered by GAO are trusted by lawmakers. GAO’s findings and recommendations regularly inform legislation and Committee’s oversight work. Bills that become law often include provisions directing GAO to study the law or the program’s implementation over time to understand whether changes are needed.

Unfortunately, audits can often take a year (or even longer) to complete. Therefore, lawmakers’ questions and interests often change during the audit process. In some cases, Members of Congress change positions, committees, or even retire, which means that GAO’s auditors may be answering questions asked by officials who are no longer in a position to act on their findings and recommendations. 

For GAO’s customers on Capitol Hill, the new innovation lab offers the potential to dramatically improve the value of GAO’s audits to the legislative and oversight process.

First, using data analytics to quickly identify patterns, such as fraud or other vulnerabilities in federal programs, could yield timely and meaningful findings for Congress and agencies.

“Fraud, waste, and abuse have long been a collective grand challenge facing federal agencies,” explained Ariga. “The Innovation Lab is looking to apply a three-pronged approach to propel anti-fraud capacity across GAO’s portfolio of financial as well as performance audits. First, explore the ecosystem of machine learning and deep learning techniques to better detect outliers, suspicious behaviors, and other anomalies. Second, share insights gained as well as lessons learned across the oversight community through GitHub and other knowledge management forums so that rising tide lifts all boats. Third, experiment how emerging technologies such as digital ledgers can combat risks of fraud, waste, and abuse.”

Second, data analytics could be used to provide continuous oversight, unlike most audits which provide a snapshot of findings at a specific time. This would allow Congress and agencies to move quickly to fix problems and continue to improve program management over time.

Ariga discussed how the innovation lab is exploring how data science can advance continuous auditing: “In other words, how do we apply data science in a persistent and continual ways so that potential anomalies are identified quickly and addressed early on before they manifest into costly issues? One idea we are actively exploring is to incorporate graph-based analyses into financial and procurement audits. We would establish a construct that would not only lessen the burden of on-going audit programs but helps auditor anticipate risks by modeling near-term outcomes.” 

Data analytics could also enhance auditors’ ability to analyze key security topics, such as the federal government’s cybersecurity initiatives, which have been on GAO’s high-risk list for decades but are challenging to evaluate. I asked GAO about how data science can advance cybersecurity oversight.

“One significant example where data science plays an important role within the cybersecurity arena is the concept of adversarial machine learning,” Ariga explained. “This concurrent attack-and-defend approach towards algorithm development and refinement has significantly advanced ways that cybersecurity professionals monitor intrusions, phishing, insider threats, and attacks. It’s similar to being forced to argue both sides of an argument in a debate—you are forced to anticipate behaviors and while evolving strategies. Within the Innovation Lab, we will look at this and other classes of machine learning and deep learning to inform on how these techniques can be applied on oversight work.”  

In these ways and other, GAO’s new Innovation Lab has the potential to revolutionize oversight and help Congress function more effectively. That should be welcome news to taxpayers across the country and everyone who wants the government to operate efficiently and securely, regardless of the political headlines. 

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on the Lincoln Policy Blog.

Filed Under:
Topics: Oversight