Senate Panel Presses OMB on Management Agenda

“GPRA is not working -- we don’t even know what a program is, so we don’t have accuracy,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said. “GPRA is not working -- we don’t even know what a program is, so we don’t have accuracy,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said. Susan Walsh/AP

The point person for the Obama administration’s 21st century management agenda came under pressure on Wednesday to sharpen agency efforts to compile a workable list of federal programs, as required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.

Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, came to a Senate hearing to flesh out the fiscal 2015 budget’s agenda and priority goals built around “pillars” of effectiveness, efficiency, economic growth, and people and culture.

But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, warned her to get ready for the House-passed Taxpayers Right to Know Act (H.R. 1423), which would require OMB to do more under the law than just inventory programs. It would also require the agency to post the total administrative costs of programs, total expenditures during the previous fiscal year, and an estimated number of full-time federal and contract employees who administered the program. Coburn said the bill has “a lot” of co-sponsors in the Senate,” including four Democrats.

“GPRA is not working -- we don’t even know what a program is, so we don’t have accuracy,” Coburn said. He asked Cobert whether the Education Department is still the “the only agency that knows what programs it has.”

Cobert replied “that’s a good question. Agencies have come to this from different places; they do think about programs differently, and their operations were set up for a different purpose.” Work on creating such data is being done, she added, citing OMB’s 2013 reform of the federal grants process. “We want to create transparency on spending and results.”

Coburn, having earlier expressed confidence in the expertise of all the witnesses, shot back. “I see that as an excuse for not doing it, as opposed to OMB saying here’s the program, here’s where you need to be in three years,” he said. “We’ll get the Taxpayer Right to Know Act because it’s the right thing to do, is common sense and will make the government better,” he said, adding that he believes such a goal is shared by Cobert, Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell and President Obama. What is missing from OMB’s approach, Coburn said, is holding people accountable.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said legislation is needed to establish a single definition of a program because it is crucial to curbing overlap and duplication. “And though there will be implementation challenges,” the provisions for program listings in the House bill “are not unreasonable, and we should be able to work it out,” he said.

But Dodaro’s written testimony criticized OMB’s efforts thus far. “OMB’s guidance for developing the inventories provided agencies with flexibility to define their programs, such as by outcomes, customers, products/services, organizational structure, and budget structure,” he noted. “As a result, agencies took various approaches to define their programs—with many using their budget structure while others used different approaches such as identifying programs by related outcomes or customer focus. The variation in definitions across agencies will limit comparability among like programs.”

On the broader management agenda, Cobert said, “New this year, the administration has established a strategic review policy where each year agencies will assess the extent to which progress is being made on their strategic objectives. The reviews will clearly identify those areas that have significant challenges and those making noteworthy progress. These annual reviews will begin each spring and incorporate a variety of analytical evidence to support the assessments.”

Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., called the administration’s list of projects “a familiar one to those of us who have been toiling in the trenches of government management for years….The goals include improved acquisition outcomes, better property management, and reduction of improper payments. To me, it’s no surprise that there are no surprises on the list.” 

The senators and Cobert agreed there has been progress on the effort to consolidate some of the more than 200 federal programs across agencies devoted to education in science, technology, engineering and math. But Dodaro cautioned that the administration’s power to merge them is limited absent legislation. “Two-thirds of the STEM programs have never been evaluated, so even if you created only 50 out of 200, in ten years you still wouldn’t know what works,” he said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., expressed concern about a recent Environmental Protection Agency inspector general’s report on abuse of purchasing cards, saying 52 percent of purchases in the audit were found to be erroneous or unauthorized.

General Services Administration chief Dan Tangherlini said that governmentwide, “this is difficult issue, and we’re trying to get better data.” He noted that in the past year GSA took data from three different purchasing card providers and stored them in one data warehouse. “We must do a better job of letting agencies know it is available,” he added. “The great thing about credit cards” is that they serve dual functions, providing data to the inspector general for auditing people while letting employees know their purchases are being observed.

Private sector experience, added Cobert, shows that the cards also promote greater efficiency in purchasing.

Tangherlini said GSA and OMB are working on creating benchmarking mission-support functions. “This effort looks to establish common metrics around administrative functions all agencies share: financial management, human capital, real property, acquisition, and IT management,” he said in written testimony. “By establishing benchmarks, the federal government will be able to assess the effectiveness and cost of common functions across government.”

Witnesses and lawmakers cited the Defense Department’s acquisition cost overruns and trouble achieving auditable books as ongoing causes for concern, with both Dodaro and Carper expressing worry over vacancies in Pentagon financial management slots, in particular the pending departure of Comptroller Robert Hale. “Some of the unfilled jobs have gone vacant for 18 months,” Carper said. “Both Congress and the administration need to do better here.”

Finally, Carper told the OMB deputy he wanted to “put on your radar” the Senate’s coming consideration of the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act, passed by the House in November, which would standardize agency spending data and transfer responsibility for the data from OMB to the Treasury Department. OMB in the past has been lukewarm on the bill championed by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. “I want to get Sen. Warner off my back,” Carper said. “But I say that lovingly.” 

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