Agencies Need Congress’ Help to Weed Out Duplicate Programs

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The success of any Obama administration bid to eliminate overlapping or duplicative programs may hinge on bipartisan cooperation from a turf-conscious Congress as well as clear and enduring metrics, a Senate panel was told on Thursday.

Efforts to curb the proliferation of education programs promoting science and math, for example, “will obviously mean some folks are not pleased at losing their programs,” the top White House science adviser said, “but agencies understand the need for greater coherence in administering them.”

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, testified before the Senate Budget Committee’s Task Force on Government Performance on the topic of “Silo Busting: Effective Strategies for Government Reorganization.”

The topic is being championed by task force leader Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who began the hearing by reiterating his intention to introduce a bill—as he did in the previous Congress -- to give President Obama his requested renewal of authority that chief executives enjoyed before the 1980s to consolidate agencies to streamline management and save money. “Any CEO worth his or her salt knows this is a key tool,” Warner said, adding that during his freshman year in the Senate he identified 11 programs that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations agreed should be ended.

“You quickly learn it’s the hardest thing, particularly across departments and with Congress’ authority entities. Each program has a champion within government or Congress,” he said.

The Government Accountability Office over the past three years has identified 300 actions that agencies could take in 131 program areas to reduce duplication. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro at the hearing reviewed the most recently reported ones, mentioning the military services’ separate pursuit of uniforms, the existence of renewable energy Initiatives at 23 agencies and duplication of investments in geospatial information technology among multiple federal and state agencies.

But making headway, Dodaro said, will depend on improved congressional oversight, clear measures of progress that are kept in place over time, and more joint- and multiple-committee hearings on the administration’s 14 cross-agency goals required under the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. “Unless Congress pays attention, it won’t be sufficient to meet our long-term fiscal challenges,” he said, adding that “it’s not the program person’s job to stop the program -- in fact, the incentives are the opposite.”

The comptroller did cite progress. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for example, recently saved $15 million by cancelling duplicative audits of program integrity contracts. But at least 21 percent of the action items have not been addressed, he said.

Dodaro said government programs duplicate themselves through a process of “accretion” over decades. He also pointed to the addition of new target populations for training programs and the Defense Department’s “service-specific incentives and stovepipes.” He said he would favor current legislation to require all bills creating new programs to document whether similar programs already exist.

Holdren noted that the Obama fiscal 2014 budget calls for spending of $3.1 billion, a 6 percent increase, on programs promoting science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, programs. Some 226 of them are currently spread over 13 agencies, and the White House proposes to save $176 million by eliminating 78 and consolidating 38. The effort would be led by the Education Department, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution, which offers less formal courses, but all three would “draw on resources and expertise from the other agencies and reach out to their specific audiences.” A strategy paper on the topic is due out later this month, he said.

Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. , said, “Common sense reforms too often fall victim to business-as-usual politics, and this needs to stop in these challenging times.“ She zeroed in on the catfish inspection program, which currently involves the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service, expressing hope that it will be streamlined during debate next week on the farm bill.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked the GAO chief whether during sequestration he had received calls from agencies on how to save money. Dodaro said not personally, but he expressed hope that agency managers had looked at the three GAO reports on duplication.

Warner said he would also like to pursue passage of the pending DATA Act, which aims to streamline finance systems, noting that the Pentagon alone has 200 financial systems. He would also like to relive agencies of obligations to produce some 200 reports to Congress that, he says, “never get looked at. It’s not a huge amount of savings, but it would be as “a sign to federal workers,” Warner said, “that we in Congress focus on a better way.”

(Image via HomeStudio/Shutterstock.com)

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