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Stimulus watchdog pushes unified coding system for governmentwide spending site

An oversight database to track federal spending should be based on reports from fund recipients, not on the agencies themselves, and should be accompanied by a common coding system for contracts, grants and awards across agencies, the government's chief watchdog for economic stimulus spending told lawmakers Tuesday.

Recipients of federal money have a "parochial" interest in ensuring the data they report is correct, Recovery and Transparency Accountability Board Chairman Earl Devaney told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Preventing fraud upfront rather than detecting it later puts agencies and their inspectors general on the same side of the playing field, he added.

Less than one-half of 1 percent of the more than $800 billion in stimulus money Devaney's board oversees is tied up in active investigations, he said, largely due to its front-end reporting system.

Vice President Joe Biden unveiled an executive order Monday creating an 11-member board to study building such a governmentwide spending database. Just a few hours earlier, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced legislation to create a similar database and oversight board.

Issa's bill, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or the 2011 DATA Act, and the executive order, titled Delivering an Efficient, Effective and Accountable Government, are both modeled on the Recovery Board's success and on recommendations from Devaney.

Devaney unveiled his own plan for such an oversight board in a documentposted to the Recovery.gov site Tuesday that apparently was based on a memo he sent to Biden.

During Tuesday's oversight hearing, Devaney recommended scrapping the different coding systems agencies use for grants and contracts in favor of a unified system, perhaps modeled on credit card numbers.

The Recovery Board wasted considerable time sorting through the different systems when codes didn't match up. "The agencies would argue that it might cost a lot of money to retrofit their systems to adapt to a new numbering system," Devaney said. "I don't underestimate the fact that some agencies are going to be outliers ... but I don't think it's as big of a problem as some are making it out to be."

Devaney also suggested that a unified federal spending database use the pay-as-you-go cloud computing model for data storage. Recovery.gov has saved significant time and money since it moved to the cloud about a year ago, he said.

Issa stressed during Tuesday's hearing that his legislation is not in conflict with the Obama administration's executive order and that the two are aiming at the same goal.

"There is no difference [between] what the vice president wants to accomplish and what I want to accomplish," Issa said in his opening statement. "There are [just] differences in how we get there from where we are -- from a labyrinth of failed and partially successful programs to one single, accountable system that is less burdensome and more effective for all Americans."

Devaney spoke positively about the legislation and the executive order, saying, "both efforts move the ball down the field.

"I think that nothing works better than legislation with firm dates in it," he said, adding, "in large part, the executive order is so we can do things now, so we can take some lessons learned and so we can adapt some of the ideas I have and others have."

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