The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a new guide to help Congress and federal agencies prevent and reduce payment errors, including fraud, in emergency assistance programs. Payment errors (or improper payments) are payments that should not have been made or were made in the incorrect amount—for example, payments made to deceased individuals or those who are not eligible for government programs. GAO’s work has shown that federal agencies can take a more strategic approach to managing the risk of payment errors in emergency assistance programs by implementing the principles outlined in this new guide.
“This important new tool is designed to help federal agencies improve their response to the growing threat posed by emergencies, such as natural disasters and public health crises,” said Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO. “The federal government has provided billions of dollars to communities recovering from emergencies and must strategically manage the risk of payment errors and fraud. This will help ensure federal emergency funds get to the people and businesses that need them.”
Such improper payments are a long-standing problem in the federal government. Over the last 20 years, the federal government has made almost $2.4 trillion in payment errors. When the federal government provides emergency assistance such as pandemic relief or disaster recovery funds, payment errors can increase. The need to get money out the door quickly to respond to an emergency can weaken the controls or safeguards that are in place to ensure the money is going to the right place and in the correct amount.
Federal agencies face several challenges when responding to emergencies, including disbursing a larger amount of funding through existing programs and rapidly creating new federal programs. Further, the recent COVID-19 pandemic saw a sharp increase in identity-related fraud, particularly in the areas of unemployment insurance and assistance to small businesses. These challenges make it more difficult for agencies to manage programs and ensure that taxpayer funds are spent appropriately.
GAO’s new framework provides five principles and corresponding practices that can help Congress and federal program managers mitigate payment errors, particularly in emergency assistance programs. They are:
- Commit to managing payment errors
- Identify and assess payment error risks, including fraud
- Design and implement effective control activities
- Monitor the effectiveness of controls in managing payment errors
- Provide and obtain information to manage payment errors
By applying these principles, GAO says federal agencies will be better prepared to respond to emergencies while ensuring that federal dollars are spent effectively and appropriately and with a lower risk of payment errors.