Monday, March 23, 2009

Oversight Within Federal Offices

With President Obama's prospective Chief Performance Officer out of consideration following concerns about her own performance in making required tax payments, we're left with the question what will be done to cut the fat out of programs that the campaign trail rhetoric suggested would be eliminated as the government increased in transparency and accountability. Apparently, NASA is one place this is needed: its Inspector General reportedly acted to protect reported-on programs rather than to investigate their performance or efficiency.

But is NASA really where it's most needed? NASA's Inspector General Robert Cobb, if he's the oaf he's alleged to be, might be a source of inefficiency and prevent reduction of waste, but he's hardly in a position to save the government most of its lost money. For example, contractors who dutifully perform under cost-plus contracts may have no inefficiency in their performance, but their pre-bid decision to use traditional (costly) methods to achieve objectives may cost NASA millions a year when they decide not to implement novel but proven improvements. (One example here: after each launch, NASA used to have a contractor clean -- for re-coating -- the metal framework from which the Shuttle launches. They long used men with chisels to remove the baked-on insulating mud. When a vendor approached the contractor and demonstrated he could do the job in about a tenth of the time -- and with less damage to the structure, so reducing the need for subsequent repair costs -- using abrasives in a water jet scrubber for an order of magnitude less cost, the NASA contractor sent him packing: on a cost-plus contract, the contractor lost money by finding efficiencies. As long as they kept winning bids, they were best served by gold-plating every possible expense. I have no idea what NASA currently does to prepare these frameworks for re-use, but if they're interested I can tell them who to contact about quick, damage-free water-jet scrubbing for less than a tenth of the cost.)

On the campaign trail, McCain singled out cost-plus contracts as the bane of the Defense Department budget. There may be other problems, but the conflict of interest created by these contracts is so against the interest of the public fisc that effort should be made to contract on some other basis. Not just in DoD or NASA but government-wide.

Perhaps what we need to motivate innovation toward effective use of tax money is an increased private incentive to identify to Congress or an appropriately-empowered official office any ongoing inefficiencies costing the government unecessary funds, or routinely obtaining a substandard result -- and a more visible avenue of expression for this information. At present, individuals can bring a False Claims Act suit to restore fraudulently-taken funds to the federal piggy-bank, but there is much that is waste that isn't within the False Claims Act. Improvement in the ability of citizens to spot and stop waste may be the cheap way to bring the most eyes to the problem, and one way to do it without risking the new watchdogs will simply fall asleep at the kennel door.

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