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Fixing the Useless Federal Program Inventory

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Sen. Tom Coburn is retiring in a few weeks, but leaves behind a legislative legacy of attempting to create more coherency and transparency about what the federal government does.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has long campaigned against the seeming incomprehensibility of the federal government’s many programs. He sponsored two pieces of legislation in 2010 to address his concerns. The first bill requires the Government Accountability Office to annually assess the fragmentation, overlap and duplication of federal programs. The second bill requires the Office of Management and Budget to create and publish on the Internet an inventory of all federal programs.

During the past four years, GAO has issued a series of reports identifying about 90 areas where the executive branch or Congress could reduce fragmentation, overlap, or duplication of programs—using the definition of “program” that it developed.

OMB developed a range of definitions of what constitutes a program and piloted this approach in 2012 among 11 agencies. It then issued guidance to the entire government later that year on how to develop their inventories, allowing a range of definitions. It completed and published its first inventory in May 2013 on a governmentwide website. OMB’s longer-term plan was to start by requiring agencies to provide basic information and iteratively increase the availability of descriptive information over time to include data required by the law, such as program-level budget information. In its first inventory, OMB lists 1,524 programs.

Legislative Changes

Because of statutory and legislative changes to the original inventory law, however, OMB chose to suspend further development of the inventory until the impact of these changes became clearer.

GAO issued a report last week assessing OMB’s initial inventory. The report sharply concludes “the inventory is not a useful tool for decision-making.” It notes that, because OMB allowed agencies to use different definitions of what constitutes a program, “similar programs across agencies may not be identifiable.” GAO compared, for example, a list of 179 programs that support Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education and was only able to match nine exactly with programs listed in OMB’s inventory (with 51 others inferred based on program descriptions provided).

GAO says agencies used six different approaches when developing their inventories. Of the 24 largest agencies, 14 used their budget program activity lines as the basis for their inventory. Others developed their inventories around services to specific customer groups, or the outputs of major programs or services, or the agency’s organizational office structures.

Two pieces of legislation—one passed and one pending—would significantly affect OMB’s efforts to develop a useful inventory. OMB is reluctant to continue with its plan because it would generate a great deal of wasted effort by agencies.

The first piece of legislation affecting the program inventory is the recently passed Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. The DATA Act requires quarterly reporting of funding available to or spent by agencies at different levels of aggregation, including the program level. The Treasury Department and OMB are developing uniform, governmentwide standards to meet these requirements, to be implemented by May 2017. How these standards are written would affect the collection and reporting of data required by the 2010 program inventory law.

The second piece of legislation would significantly alter the program inventory. Passed by the House and is pending in the Senate, the Taxpayer Right-to-Know Act would require estimates of how many beneficiaries served, federal employees managing the program, and contractors or grantees supporting the program. It is unclear whether this bill will pass, but it would dramatically change data collection requirements for the inventory.

What’s Next

There are legitimate technical concerns about what constitutes a “program,” as I’ve written about before. OMB’s suspension makes sense, given the uncertainty about the potential implications of recent or pending legislation. GAO recommends that future inventory efforts:

  • Present program-level budget information. This is required in the inventory law, but wasn’t required by OMB for the 2013 inventory effort. OMB had initially planned to request this additional information for the 2014 inventory but suspended that effort when the DATA Act was passed because it also requires similar information to be collected and reported on a separate website. Given limited funding, OMB says it wants to leverage information from each of these websites to reduce duplication, costs and errors as well as the collection burdens on agencies.

  • Provide complete program information. The inventory law also requires descriptions of how each program contributes to an agency’s goals. GAO found that seven of the 24 major agencies failed to show how programs supported their strategic goals, and 13 failed to show how programs supported strategic objectives—a more discrete description of what agencies do. This year, agencies conducted analytic reviews of about 300 strategic objectives for the first time.

  • Consult with stakeholders. GAO says none of the 24 agencies consulted with outside stakeholders—Congress, state or local governments, or advocacy groups—on how they should develop their inventories, even though OMB’s guidance directed agencies to do so. GAO said if agencies had done this, the information collected for the 2013 inventory might have been more useful to stakeholders.

What GAO doesn’t address in its report is when OMB and agencies should act on these recommendations. A good guess might be to restart the inventory data collection efforts after the DATA Act’s standards are defined and solidified, which is targeted for May 2015. 

(Image via Foto-Ruhrgebiet/Shutterstock.com)

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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