Federal Inspectors General have the crucial task of agency oversight, often handling that job for large agencies while operating on relatively small budgets. To keep up with their responsibilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, IG offices have had to leverage new technologies – and old technologies in new ways – over the past year-plus, IG officials explained today.

For the IG offices at both the United States Postal Service (USPS) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), that has included help in overseeing the 2020 election and disbursement of CARES Act funds using a variety of new tools, representatives from both OIGs said Wednesday at an AFFIRM virtual event.

Election Mail

With all eyes on USPS for the 2020 Presidential election, the agency CIO developed an Election Mail application in three days that could be used on both mobile and web browsers to streamline data collection of how processing facilities and delivery units were handling election materials in real-time. This enabled the agency to keep up with oversight duties while limiting the amount of travel.

“We knew this election was going to be scrutinized very closely. So, we knew that our project would be very important in that we’d have to provide a wide scope of oversight for the Postal Service,” Todd Watson, director of Network Processing at USPS OIG, said. “We basically leveraged almost an entire organization to help us go out to our local postal facilities and complete observations of what the mail conditions are like there – was there any election mail that was delayed at that facility, … was the facility following their proper procedures for postmarking ballots, and reporting out in their internal systems.”

Overall, the election mail app was pushed out in about a week, Alana Daly, a program analyst at USPS OIG’s Network Processing Directorate, estimated. The tool was then provided to about 500 team members, allowing them to complete over 2,000 observations at USPS facilities leading up to, and during, the week of the 2020 Presidential election.

While the quick turnaround allowed USPS OIG to get operational quickly, Daly said they would not want to have to replicate the process. The type of application is replicable for other functions though, and she offered some ideas that would make the next process smoother.

“I wouldn’t want to try to build in three days again, or over, and I don’t think anyone loves that. But I think just the biggest thing was … even more preparation at the beginning,” Daly said. “So I think time was probably the biggest factor of just building it, and having everything prepped and ready before we actually started implementation.”

HHS Funding Spike

For HHS, the pandemic era has been all about healthcare, but also about a tremendous increase in spending.

The OIG at HHS has seen the amount of spending it oversees rise drastically during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the OIG oversaw around $1 trillion in spending, but, between the CARES Act and subsequent COVID-19 relief bills, that number is now around $2.4 trillion, Renata Miskell, senior advisor to the Chief Data and Analytics Officer at HHS OIG, said at today’s event.

As far as how the office is leveraging tech to help with oversight, Miskell explained that most of their projects in that area fall under one of three categories: leveraging cloud to detect fraud, helping boots on the ground, or leveraging AI.

On the first use, Miskell said, “there are instances where that provider may be double-dipping, triple-dipping, or they might be inappropriately receiving those [PPP and other kinds of] funds and so what we did was leveraging our cloud platform, we’re able to bring in multiple data sources and sort of visualize. … Then we could apply our regular sort of fraud flags on those, or risk flags and help our investigators [and] auditors target … and look into those instances.”

The second use, Miskell noted, was similar to the USPS app, where HHS OIG utilized a mobile app for a program titled Operation Care. Operation Care sent inspectors to over 600 nursing homes and emergency medical service providers to quickly get data in about whether facilities had appropriate Personal Protective Equipment and were following the necessary COVID protocols.

On the AI front, Miskell noted the agency is using the technology to help flag grants, and her colleague Nicole Willis, the chief enterprise architect and director of architecture and transformation in the office of the CIO within HHS OIG, added the agency is also using robotic process automation (RPA) for processes like flagging social media keywords to help detect COVID-19 fraud.

“We’re trying to balance … using what we have, but with bringing in new technologies,” Willis said. “We had an opportunity to look at robotic process automation, because we have a lot of manual processes, and you could imagine some of these investigations and audits and evaluations can take many, many man-hours. So, we did an experiment with using RPA tool against social media to help identify incidences of COVID fraud,” she said, adding, “it actually got really successful and … saved our workers many of hours.”

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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