Baseball and Muffins

Scenes from the governmentwide war on waste.

In this month's cover story, Joe Marks takes an indepth look at President Obama's campaign to tackle wasteful government spending, a de rigeur move for presidential administrations made all the more pressing today by the depth of the country's fiscal woes.

The Obama administration is making every effort to drum up public support for its anti-waste, pro-efficiency crusade, including riding on the coattails of Hollywood hits like the movie Moneyball, which opened this fall.

The film, based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, stars Brad Pitt in the role of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who is portrayed as a heroic challenger to baseball's conventional wisdom for adopting new methods of evaluating players and assessing overall team strengths. His approach, the story goes, enabled his small-market club to compete against much better capitalized behemoths like the New York Yankees.

In September, Shelley Metzenbaum of the Office of Management and Budget took to the agency's blog to argue that the administration "has been taking its own Moneyball approach to management, driving performance and, ultimately, saving money."

"Like Beane, who understood that his goal was to win games-not hit the most home runs-government agencies must learn to be clear about what they want to accomplish and not get stuck in the rut of doing what they have always done,"

Metzenbaum wrote. "That means setting real, achievable goals that align with agency mission, and sticking to them."

But at the same time the administration was touting its Moneyball prowess, it had to deal with a media feeding frenzy around one of those irresistible stories of money allegedly ill-spent: The Tale of the $16 Muffin.

It started when the Justice Department inspector general's office released a report on conference spending. The report found that in fiscal 2008 and 2009, Justice organizations hosted or participated in 1,832 conferences costing a total of $121 million. IG auditors reviewed 10 events between October 2007 and September 2009, and said they found several instances of "costly meals, refreshments or themed breaks that we believe were indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending."

So far, so much bureaucratic detail in yet another dry audit. But the report happened to include one minor detail: At one conference, the IG's analysis of spending records showed, officials had spent $16 apiece on muffins. And with that a bigger-than-life anecdote was born, one that fueled hundreds of news stories, dozens of cable TV talkfests and scores of blog outbursts.

Within a day, the Obama administration ordered all federal agencies to review their conference-related activities and expenses. In December, at the next meeting of the administration's Campaign to Cut Waste, agency heads will be required to report on what they're doing to get such spending under control.

There's just one thing: The Justice Department didn't really spend $16 on muffins. Shortly after the muffin story broke, the Associated Press reported that Hilton Worldwide, accused in the IG report of charging the extravagant prices, said auditors had misinterpreted its invoices. The prices it charged included not just baked goods but fresh fruit, coffee, tea, soft drinks, tax and tips.

It's impossible to know at this stage how much money agencies will spend trying to figure out whether they're wasting money on conferences. But one thing's for sure: It'll buy a lot of muffins.

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