Improper Payments and American Financial Mismanagement

Sound government fiscal management requires, among other things, ensuring that government payments are made accurately—to the right payee, in the correct amount, and with sufficient documentation. Failure to implement effective systems to prevent improper payments leaves the government checkbook at risk of fraud, corruption, and other forms of abuse. Alas, the magnitude of improper payments in the United States is astounding: in 2016, the US reported $144 billion in improper payments—nearly the double the budget for the Department of Education. Improper payments for Medicaid alone are more than ten times the total size of the Community Development Block Grants that the Trump Administration intends to cut – allegedly to save money, even though eliminating this program would have disastrous consequences for programs such as Meals on Wheels.

While improper payments in other contexts are part of corruption schemes, such as the “ghost soldiers” in Afghanistan that Sarah his discussed in this post, improper payments under domestic U.S. programs like Medicaid are more likely to be the result of fraud or simple mismanagement than public corruption. That said, we have no idea how much corruption contributes to the massive improper payments problem. In either case, the most effective policy responses are largely similar, regardless of the underlying cause of the problem.  However, the U.S. response to the improper payments problem has so far been inadequate.

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The Toll Corruption Takes on Afghan Security Force Capacity

Corruption in Afghanistan and its role in the ongoing instability of the country has been discussed on this blog before (see, for example, here, here, and here), but for the most part in fairly general, strategic-level terms. In this post, I’m going to zoom in and explain in greater detail two particularly insidious types of corruption that plague the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF): 1) the problem of “ghost” soldiers, and 2) the pilfering of fuel, weapons, and other supplies intended for security force personnel. These forms of corruption leave Afghan security forces hollow and ill-equipped to accomplish the missions assigned to them. As long as pervasive corruption continues to undermine force capacity, readiness, and morale, the prospect of Afghan government forces gaining the upper hand on the Taliban and other insurgents remains slim.

“Ghost soldiers” are fictitious troops added to personnel rosters by corrupt officials who then collect the extra pay allocated for these (in some cases deceased, in some cases no longer active, and in some cases totally made-up) soldiers. To give a sense of the scale of the problem, consider the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army. In 2015, local officials suggested that up to 40 percent of names on the books did not correspond to actively-serving soldiers. For the 215th Corps, with an authorized strength of 18,000, that would mean fewer than 11,000 soldiers were actually available to fight. Earlier this year, US Army Major General Richard Kaiser, commander of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CTSC-A), told the Wall Street Journal that the US had removed from the Afghan military payrolls more than 30,000 suspected ghost soldiers. That group of names amounted to over one-sixth of the Afghan army, significantly less than 40 percent but nevertheless a staggering figure. For reference, 30,000 is the same number of additional US troops President Obama sent to Afghanistan in December 2009 in a surge deemed necessary to turn the tide in the conflict.

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