Why Congressional Technology Spending Matters and How to Improve the Situation

An architect's rendering of the U.S. Capitol Dome from between 1853 and 1865 from the Library of Congress.
(Architect rendering via Library of Congress)

Crossposted from The OpenGov Foundation blog.  Read The OpenGov Foundation’s prior analysis of Senate and House tech spending.

As our analyses have shown, without complete, accurate and timely spending data, the public is effectively guessing at where their tax dollars go and what value is returned. It is reasonable to expect that Congressional decision-makers are in a similar situation. If you’re shooting in the dark like this, it is difficult — if not impossible — to hit your target. Serving and staffing in Congress is already hard enough without these expensive additional headaches.

Is there another Aaron Schock situation or other Member malfeasance hiding in plain sight? Is one Senator paying more than another for the same tech support service, or same web development work? Are there better, cheaper open source options available? Is Congress getting the best price and best value, or is it getting ripped off? Are there opportunities to pool resources and save significant taxpayer money?

The public doesn’t know. We couldn’t find out. And it is reasonable to expect that decision-makers on Capitol Hill don’t always know either.

The answer is clear: Congress needs to fully overhaul its accounting systems and financial oversight processes. Everything from the software and data formats used, to internal reporting and controls, to how and when it publishes the results all appear to be largely outdated, inefficient and paper-based. From our perspective, every step of the process — from a staff assistant typing in receipts to a citizen sifting through thousands of PDF pages — is a major pain in the posterior and in need of an upgrade. The root causes of this problem must be addressed with nothing short of a full overhaul. Until that transformation happens, Members of Congress, their constituents and the news media will either remain marooned in ignorance or continue to make incredibly important decisions based on a mere sliver of the truth.

Going Further: Garbage In? Garbage Out

Many would wash their hands of all this after suggesting a better way forward. We did not and we will not. Because from our perspective the crucial question to be answered is: why is the data so unreliable and low-quality? It simply is not enough to highlight some of the public-facing problems, most of which have been identified at some level inside Congress. It is not enough to suggest a solution. The missing piece, crucial to anyone invested in doing something about these problems, is understanding why the situation is as it is and how it got that way.

To this end, we went as far upstream as possible in the congressional disbursement workflow: the point where real staffers in real congressional offices document their office’s expenditures for reimbursement out of each Member’s representational allowance (MRA). To put it mildly, going all the way upstream explained pretty much all of our frustrations.

The main menu of the Congressional Accounting & Personnel System (CAPS).
(Main menu screenshot via CAPS User Manual)

Introducing: Congressional Accounting & Personnel System (CAPS). This is the software platform most used by congressional staff comply with their boss’ public reporting requirements and internal compliance procedures.

In brief, here’s how spending data input process can work. A Member or staffer buys a thing or a service that supports official business. If and when the Member or staffer remembers to do so, they hand junior staff paper receipts and handwritten voucher cover sheets for submission to the Finance Office and entry into the internal finance system called PeopleSoft. One by one, interns or staff assistants painstakingly type each expenditure into CAPS, which eventually feeds into PeopleSoft, deciding how to classify each expenditure, vendor and purpose. Recalling one of our earlier examples, one staff assistant could type in “LEXISNEXIS” (no space) while another types in “LEXIS NEXIS” for the exact same purchase. Given this reality, Congress just doesn’t have the right tools, or sufficient staff, to resolve the countless issues that then arise downstream.

The voucher cover sheet menu in the Congressional Accounting & Personnel System (CAPS).
(Voucher cover sheet via CAPS User Manual)

Alternatively, offices can fill out a paper voucher form with receipts. Those documents can be scanned and sent or physically dropped off to the Finance Office for entry into PeopleSoft. Some offices directly enter their data into PeopleSoft with scanned receipts. Among the options, most offices submit through the CAPS system. All of these methods involve significant data entry and records conversion that can frustrate even the most diligent staffers.

Want to learn more? We obtained the full 200 page user manual for the Congressional Accounting & Personnel System (CAPS), which you can read here.

Congress Can Fix This

This critical situation is not the fault of any one person or office. But it is a growing problem that must be addressed as soon as possible. Fortunately, current leaders in both the House and the Senate should have a firm grasp on the issues at hand. After all, this is a Congress that recently spent four years securing passage of the watershed DATA Act, which requires that the Executive Branch transition its grants, loans and contracts spending information to modern, open data formats produced by modern software. Before that, Members of Congress and staff marveled at how well Recovery.gov fulfilled its oversight responsibilities to stop waste, fraud and abuse of billions of dollars of stimulus spending. And it is safe to say that everyone on Capitol Hill is familiar with the benefits of personal online banking.

Congress clearly understands the problem, and how modern technology and open data formats can solve it. And while there are many off-the-shelf products and services that would mark a vast improvement over the current CAPS system, we recognize the challenges posed by such sweeping changes to key congressional systems, not to mention its culture of compliance. That’s why there are many outfits like ours that stand ready to assist in upgrading these systems and procedures. The time is now, for the problem grows larger–and the solution, more costly–with each passing day.

The good news is that, within the House, change is coming. From reading 2015 semiannual report, it appears that the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the House is making progress towards implementing a new system, Hyperion. From the CAO report:

“Staff who handle finances in House offices will have a powerful new tool to help them. Hyperion software is a faster and more efficient way to plan office budgets with real-time numbers that can easily be adjusted to offices’ changing needs. The Office of Finance is currently testing the system. It is scheduled to go live with phase 1 of the project on October 1, 2015. The system will launch with the Office of Budget Policy and Planning (BPP) along with all House Fiscal Year Offices. Phase 2 will be an expanded rollout for Member, Committee and Leadership (MCL) offices and other non-CAO offices for the replacement of the Congressional Accounting and Personnel System (CAPS) budgeting functionality.”

We count that as progress; however, if our Congress is spending taxpayer money to implement a modern, custom-made accounting and finance system, we believe that the public should be able to access the source code without restriction, and that other government bodies — first and foremost the U.S. Senate — should be able to reuse the code and build off of the system developed by the House. Unfortunately, the owners of Hyperion software, Oracle, places such ridiculously heavy and straight-jacketing restrictions on all of its customers that even the most powerful government of the most powerful country in the history of humanity doesn’t appear to be able to break free.

Still, this is a positive development; moreover, on page 1047 of the December 2015 omnibus spending bill, it appears that $1,300,000 in funding was set aside “for upgrade of the Legislative Branch Financial Management System.” We hope that this amount is sufficient to allow rapid deployment of the software by the House CAO. Completing the overhaul of the House’s financial systems should be a, if not the, top priority of whomever becomes the next Chief Administrative Officer of the House. And if the Senate hasn’t started its long-overdue upgrade, it should get moving without any further delay.

In the year 2016, no one, especially those in charge of the legislative branch, should have to fight as hard as we have to find out how Congress is spending taxpayer money. No Member or staffer should have to spend countless hours on financial compliance, when there are so many better and faster ways to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. And no one should cast aspersions on those who serve in Congress, or make negative assumptions on their spending decisions, without first taking the time to understand how incredibly hard it is to work on Capitol Hill in this age of shrinking budgets and growing workloads.

Now more than ever, all Americans must take a step back and reflect on the potentially dire consequences of the larger problem before us. We are continuing to force the men and women serving on our behalf in government to try to tackle our shared 21st century challenges without providing them the basic 21st century tools to get those wickedly hard jobs done.

Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.

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