Saving More, Duplicating Less: GAO Gets Specific With Agencies

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In the third of a series of reports on agency waste, the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday identified 31 new areas of overlap and potential for greater efficiency, ranging from duplicative geospatial maps to multiple offices monitoring inspections of catfish.

“Collectively, these reports show that, if the actions are implemented, the government could potentially save tens of billions of dollars annually,” GAO said in a report that was the topic of a House hearing on Tuesday. It also announced the launch of a new publicly accessible website tracking agency progress toward addressing the 131 areas of interagency redundancy that the watchdog has spotlighted over the past three years.

Within the 31 new areas, wrote Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, “we identify eight actions that the executive branch or Congress could take to reduce fragmentation, overlap, or duplication, as well as other cost savings or revenue enhancement opportunities.” GAO acknowledged that “it may be appropriate for multiple agencies or entities to be involved in the same programmatic or policy area due to the nature or magnitude of the federal effort,” but stressed that the areas it highlighted for attention --17 for duplication and 14 for potential cost savings -- “may be creating inefficiencies.”

Since GAO’s first report on duplication and waste in 2011, the report said, the executive branch has successfully addressed 16 of GAO’s areas of concern, partially addressed 87, and failed to address 27. Of 300 actions GAO previously recommended within these areas, 65 were addressed; 149 were partially addressed; and 85 were not addressed.

GAO’s report, according to an administration official, confirms the progress that has been made on 75 percent of the past recommendations, and the GAO is aware that many of the actions to reduce duplication will require years to carry out.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., praised the nonpartisan agency’s work in an opening statement for the hearing, saying his own panel had been “responsive” to many of GAO’s recommendations. “At a time of increased budget pressure, American taxpayers cannot afford to keep buying the same service twice,” he said.

But Issa added that the report contains “no detailed cost-saving associated with each recommendation. This is because federal agencies often cannot tell us how much money is spent on a particular program. Federal agencies also lack meaningful performance metrics for programs. In fact, federal agencies cannot even provide a simple list of all programs in their own agency.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the panel’s ranking member, told the hearing that “Congress is doing a much poorer job than the executive branch in implementing” GAO’s recommendations.

The Office of Management and Budget, the GAO report noted, has undertaken coordination of the first-ever inventory of all federal programs, scheduled for completion in May.

Some precise figures on savings were offered on Tuesday by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who has worked closely with GAO on efforts to attack waste. In a Tuesday statement he estimated that recommendations in the new report could save the government a total of $95 billion annually. Examples Coburn gave included a count of 679 renewable energy initiatives at 23 federal agencies and their 130 sub-agencies that cost taxpayers $15 billion in fiscal 2010; and 76 programs to prevent or treat drug abuse that are spread across 15 agencies, costing $4.5 billion in fiscal 2012.

"From day one, the president has made rooting out waste and improving the way government works a top priority," said an Obama administration statement on GAO’s work from U.S. Controller Danny Werfel. "The president's 2014 budget will include new proposals to reorganize programs and streamline and strengthen services, building on the hundreds of proposals the president has proposed each year to cut, consolidate or save money on programs that are no longer needed."

GAO’s specifics included finding six components within the Homeland Security Department involved in research and development. Auditors examined 50 related contracts and found “35 instances among 29 contracts in which the contracts overlapped with activities conducted elsewhere in the department. Taken together, these 29 contracts were worth about $66 million,” GAO said, adding that two DHS components awarded five separate contracts that each addressed detection of the same chemical. “Moreover,” the report said, “DHS did not have the policies and mechanisms necessary to coordinate or track research and development activities across the department.”

The Internal Revenue Service, GAO said, could improve its effort to reduce the gap between what taxpayers owe and what the agency collects by completing “a broad strategy, including a timeline and performance measures, for how it intends to use information collected to improve tax compliance.”

In general, GAO advised agencies to curb waste and duplication by improving planning; measuring performance and results (as required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act); stepping up use of strategic sourcing in procurement; improving management oversight, particularly of information technology acquisitions; and seeking legislative changes. On changes that require congressional action, the report gave as an example the fact that three agencies --the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service -- all inspect the nation’s catch of catfish.

(Image via gennady/Shutterstock.com)

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