• on Aug 25th, 2014 in OIG | 1 comment

    About 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the past 2 years alone, according to IBM. Yes, we live in the era of Big Data.

    Data is vital to our work as an OIG. We use data analytics – including data mining, risk assessment models, and predictive analytics – to help focus our audits and investigations on high-risk areas of the U.S. Postal Service that yield the largest financial impact and/or efficiency improvements. For our organization, data analytics is a game-changer. Using a single data interface, investigators no longer have to comb through different programs and network folders, saving considerable time. Our predictive model lets us identify cases involving a high probability of fraud, before beginning an investigation.

    While the data game is rapidly evolving, federal laws governing data use have moved at a slower pace. The recently enacted DATA Act provides a powerful weapon in combatting fraud and waste in government by standardizing and opening up federal spending information for all to see. But agencies still face bottlenecks in uncovering fraud and abuse. Notably, the Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act of 1988 – written before Big Data and intended as an extension of the Privacy Act – added procedural steps that agencies must follow when matching federal, state, and local electronic databases.

    Say an agency wanted to check its payroll data against the Department of Labor’s (DOL) workers’ compensation records to determine if an individual is collecting both a paycheck and a workers’ compensation check. Under the 1988 law, the requesting agency would need to draft a formal matching agreement to be reviewed by the data integrity boards at both the requesting and responding agencies (in this example, DOL). The complicated process can take 6 months or more, during which time fraud can continue.

    The Computer Matching Act was passed at a time when people were unfamiliar with computers and worried about their privacy. Privacy is still a major concern, but is privacy protection inadvertently skewed in favor of criminals? Data analytics allows investigators to root out fraud and abuse early and find those responsible before they can make a long-term habit of it. But the most effective uses of data analytics are often obstructed with administrative hurdles.

    What is the right balance between protecting federal employees’ privacy and equipping agencies to quickly detect fraud and abuse? If you accept money from the government – such as a paycheck, disability check, grant award, or contractor payment – should you expect more scrutiny? Would you be willing to share your data to help combat fraud? Or is an overabundance of protection necessary in this age of Big Data? 

  • on Mar 17th, 2014 in OIG | 2 comments

    “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

    So said former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who could be considered a forefather of Sunshine Week. No, not some Spring Break in Florida for government workers, but an annual initiative held the week of James Madison’s birthday to promote open and transparent government. The term “operating in the sunshine” means conducting business in a for-all-to-see way that enlightens and empowers people to play an active role in their government – one of the key elements of a democracy. Sunshine also serves to curb misdeeds or abuse.

    The sunshine concept took many years to evolve. It gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, when news reports of federal abuses and “enemies lists” prompted Congress to pass legislation to open up government to greater public view. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Government in the Sunshine Act, and the Privacy Act were some of the products of a push for good government.

    Another sunshine initiative was the 1978 Inspector General Act, which created IGs in 12 of the largest federal agencies to detect and prevent fraud and misconduct in agency programs and to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of agency operations. The law has been amended over the years to increase the number of agencies with IGs to 73, including the Office of Inspector General for the Postal Service in 1996. Right off the bat, we took the concepts of openness and transparency to heart. Shortly after setting up the agency, we launched a website and started publishing reports online. In fact, we’ve posted so many reports on our website that you would have to comb through 143 pages of summaries just to find them all. (Fortunately, we have a search function that makes it easy to find what you want.)

    We created a webpage to notify stakeholders of audit projects before they start so we can gain your insights on those projects. We launched this very blog 5+ years ago to open a dialogue with you on issues affecting the Postal Service. Finally, we have fielded lots of FOIA requests, – formal, written requests for records maintained by the OIG. We handled 36 in FY 1998. Last year, that number topped 600 formal FOIA and Privacy Act requests; more than 4,500 total in our 18-year history.

    At a time when the future direction of the Postal Service is at stake, how government does business is of heightened public interest. (The Postal Service is considered part of the government.) And that is arguably at the root of the sunshine concept. It’s your government; you are entitled to know how it is carrying out its mission.

  • on Nov 4th, 2013 in OIG | 3 comments

    Wow, how time flies. Five years ago we launched our first blog as a way to engage stakeholders and solicit input on important postal topics. We haven’t stopped blogging since – 282 and counting (and more than 670,000 views!). A lot has changed in that 5 years – not necessarily for the U.S. Postal Service but in the social media realm. Things happen fast in the social media world: Facebook went public last year and now stands at a $100 billion company; Twitter has reached more than 230 million active users; the number of blogs out there has surpassed the 180 million mark; and a constant stream of newer players like Instagram and Vine further boost the impact of social media.

    Our blogging experience has changed in that time as well. Over the past year, we have noticed that overall comments to the blogs have declined, but activity on our Facebook page has soared. We post each week’s blog to our Facebook page and often find that’s where the action is. For example, our May 6 blog, “Community Connection: Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive” yielded one lonely comment on the blog, but absolutely lit up on Facebook. As of October 18, 2013, our May 9 Stamp Out Hunger Facebook post was viewed by more than 3,000 people. Similarly, using our Twitter account to mention blogs can drive activity as people retweet and favorite what we post.

    No matter where you share them, we encourage your comments. Send them via blog comments, on our Audit Project pages, on Facebook, or tweet us using @OIGUSPS. Your comments have prompted audit projects, white papers, or even the need to turn something over to our Office of Investigations. We’d also like to hear your ideas on future blog topics. What would you like us to cover? Keep in mind, a blog is a small window into an idea, not the place for exhaustive research. Often, we just tee up an issue and provide the pros and cons on it and then let the public weigh in. But we are always open to ideas.

    It might seem ironic that stakeholders like to comment online about a hard-copy service that is as old as the country itself. But we think the juxtaposition is apt – the Postal Service is still a valuable infrastructure in an increasingly digital world. Social media provides stakeholders yet another outlet for “informing the debate” about what our postal system should be. We look forward to hearing from you. 

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