Secretary of Education Rod Paige has curtailed employees’ spending authority and plans to put top officials on performance contracts in new efforts to hold his agency more accountable.
The changes were announced July 17 in a three-month progress report on ongoing efforts to curb waste and abuse of Department of Education funds. The secretary also applauded Senate confirmation last week of four of his top lieutenants, action that represents the first break in an appointments logjam that had left the department’s executive suite virtually empty for months.
The changes in department policy include reducing the spending limits on all purchase cards some employees use to buy materials, such as office supplies and computers. In addition, Mr. Paige announced, the department has begun monthly reconciliation of some financial accounts and has dramatically increased the use of electronic funds transfers to cut down on human error.
In all, the department has put into place almost half of 661 recommendations made in April by the department’s auditors, its inspector general, and the General Accounting Office. Mr. Paige said the remaining recommendations would be implemented by October.
“In the last 90 days, a lot has taken place,” the secretary said at the event announcing the changes. “We have dedicated ourselves to the proposition that the Department of Education can be a well-run, well-respected agency.”
Mr. Paige also plans to add a new assistant secretary for management to his top-level team, and have that person oversee the remedies. The position, which will require Senate confirmation, has existed in previous administrations but has been vacant for more than five years.
The team of veteran employees of the department, who have been on special assignment for more than three months, will continue to investigate the problems and work on solutions through September, when the group will release a final report and five-year action plan.
Since taking office in January, Secretary Paige has called for a “culture of accountability” among the department’s 4,800 employees and has vowed to fix what are seen as long-standing problems.
The interim report is yet another chapter in the continuing scrutiny of the agency’s management practices. For the past three years, the department has failed three audits because of missing or incomplete records, and has come under investigation by Congress. And earlier this year, 11 people, including four employees, were indicted on charges of defrauding the agency of more than $1 million by stealing technological equipment and turning in false timesheets.
Mr. Paige’s goal is to create safeguards sufficient to prevent any such abuses and have a “clean” audit in 15 months.
Two career employees who serve on the task force agreed that the agency’s culture is changing. Bob Danielson, the deputy chief information officer, and John Higgins, the deputy inspector general, said that employees’ morale had dropped after the allegations of mismanagement and that most agency workers were happy to see the focus on accountability.
“[Mr. Paige’s] effort has energized the issue of accountability,” Mr. Higgins said. He said the task force had found management problems growing from a longtime decline in department safeguards. “Over the years, some internal controls got relaxed,” he said.
Republican critics in Congress have suggested that more episodes of alleged fraud and abuse could be uncovered, but they have been supportive of Mr. Paige’s efforts.
Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, released a statement June 17 that blamed the Clinton administration for the problems. The committee plans to hold another hearing soon to discuss the agency’s management.
But Mr. Paige said he was not going to point fingers and instead plans to focus on current issues. “We’re looking forward, not backwards,” he said.
Secretary Paige’s predecessor, Richard W. Riley, and other education officials from the Clinton administration have strongly disputed Republican criticism of their management record. They say that the department took vigorous action over the past eight years to address management woes, such as by curbing problems in the student financial-aid system that were inherited from previous administrations.
Mr. Paige also used the July 17 press conference to highlight the recent confirmations of Undersecretary Eugene W. Hickok and Assistant Secretaries Susan Neumann, for elementary and secondary education; Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, for educational research; and Becky Campoverde for congressional and legislative affairs. The Senate quickly approved their nominations on July 11.
With those confirmations, the Senate has confirmed Mr. Paige and five of his top staff. In addition, President Bush has named submitted names for seven other rank-ing executive positions in the departments. Two jobs—assistant secretary for post-secondary education and commissioner of education statistics—have yet to be filled. (The statistics commissioner serves a fixed term; that job is currently being held on an acting basis.) Inspector General Lorraine P. Lewis, a holdover from the Clinton administration, rounds out the 16-member management team.
Not having enough political appointees confirmed to perform their jobs “has been extremely frustrating,” Mr. Paige said. He added, “I understand this is a very complicated process, but it needs changing.”
President Bush has also announced his selection for the Education Department’s chief financial officer, which oversees much of the financial dealings of the agency. The appointment of Jack Martin, an accountant and management consultant, was announced July 10.
Mr. Martin, 60, is the managing director and CEO of Jack Martin and Co. in Washington, a firm that specializes in financial-management consulting for domestic federal agencies. In recent years, he has worked extensively with the Department of Health and Human Services.
That job, which has been vacant for three years, oversees the agency’s accounting systems and budget and will also be instrumental in putting in place the new internal- accountability plans.