Warren Buffett once famously said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Of course, Mr. Buffett was referring to the economy, but with the recent pandemic’s receding tide, we are beginning to see that the quote has broader applications.
It’s hard to frame rebuttals to the observations that many healthcare professionals have left their fields or that workplaces that depended on large numbers of people working in offices are now learning to deal with new remote work experiences. The pandemic revealed cracks in the foundations of many of our social institutions and showed the limits of our resilience for our examination. What we do about these conundrums remains to be seen.
Not to be flippant, but one area that showed plenty of resilience and initiative was the fraudulent activities of people who saw an opportunity to promise to deliver a service or goods and just raked in the dough. The government acted rightly with all kinds of pandemic relief programs to ease the crisis, and just as promptly, thieves, scoundrels, swindlers, and cons moved in to make a killing on what they saw as a free lunch.
I saw my share of potential fraudsters as a small government cultural program director. Unfortunately, some of the potential fraudsters do not even see themselves as such. Instead, they are just attempting to aid the cash flow from government accounts to their accounts. I was very fortunate to have a contracting officer to work with who saw working with me as an opportunity to educate a newbie about the world of government responsibilities. Unfortunately, not all are so lucky.
I was dealing with relatively small amounts and volumes, and even then, I had my share of people who simply did not perform as contracted. The first time it happened, I was dismayed to find that the cash amount was considered too small to pursue for recovery. I was then amazed to find that the process of barring that contractor was so byzantine and obscure that it was just easier to write the bids in such a way that it made it harder for them to get selected.
So knowing what I know, I have great sympathy for what a new program must go through when there is extreme pressure on them to perform and get the funding to the people who need it ASAP.
Any impartial observer would suggest that getting the services, personnel, and equipment to those who need it is the first priority in a crisis. But if fraud bleeds off a significant percentage of the effort, it weakens our belief in the measures’ effectiveness. It’s easy to believe that corruption is at the root of poor performance when it is an inability to stop the corrupt, the cons, and the thieves before they ruin the works.
The government has built-in controls for stopping this sort of thing. CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) provides guidance to prevent thievery. Inspectors General are also in each government area, and contracting officers can and do provide advice. My general observation is that many politicians and some government personnel like to clip corners and evade regulations. The easiest way to do that is to weaken the system’s controls, avoid contract regulations on letting bids, and weaken the Inspectors General.
Responding rapidly is necessary for an emergency, but ensuring that the goods and services get to those who need them is just part of that. The other part of a good response is ensuring your efforts are not perceived as riddled with waste and corruption.