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The New Poster Children for Duplication in Federal Programs

Watchdog releases a fresh list of redundant or overlapping programs.

In what for the past four years has become an annual ritual, Congress’ watchdog agency on Tuesday unveiled a fresh list of agency programs that overlap with or duplicate one another, giving the Obama administration a mixed report card on implementing past recommendations for weeding out programs that appear superfluous.

The Government Accountability Office, in a report and in testimony to the top House oversight panel, identified 19 actions it said could “address evidence of fragmentation, overlap, or duplication in 11 new areas across the government missions of defense, health, income security, information technology and international affairs.”

The nonpartisan auditors also laid out 45 opportunities for executive branch agencies or Congress to take actions to reduce the cost of government operations or enhance revenue collections for the Treasury across 15 areas of government.

The Office of Management and Budget responded on Tuesday with a blog post praising GAO’s work but defending the administration’s progress and ongoing efforts at curbing duplication.

In its progress report, GAO said that of the 389 actions in 162 areas it had recommended over four years, 124 (32 percent) had been fully addressed, 172 (44 percent) were partially addressed, and 74 (19 percent) were not addressed either by the executive branch or Congress.

Examples of ongoing duplication, GAO said, include:

  • The Defense Department’s “fragmented” contracting for health care professionals, whose managers seeking joint use contracts have been able to consolidate only 8 percent of those programs’ $1.14 billion in obligations;
  • Radio communications systems at the Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury departments were all modernized independently rather than jointly, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars and results in a lack of interoperability;
  • Disability and unemployment benefits can be collected by the same individuals, double-dippers who numbered 117,000 in fiscal 2010, totaling more than $850 million.

Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at OMB, cast the tally of recommendations in a positive light. GAO found that the executive branch addressed or partially addressed 83 percent of the recommended actions, she wrote, and partially addressed 42 percent of the recommended actions directed to Congress. “Many of GAO’s recommendations deal with some of the most complex and challenging areas across the federal government. Fully addressing them is a long-term process that in many cases will take years to implement -- a fact that GAO recognizes,” she said.

President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget and second-term management agenda, she added, includes a repeat of his past proposal for revived congressional authority for a fast-track process for consolidating agencies. The budget also specified several proposals addressing redundant programs, among them the greater use of strategic sourcing, streamlining Farm Service Agency operations, and simplifying education programs dealing with science, technology, engineering and math.

“In each of the president’s first three budgets,” Cobert wrote, “the administration identified, on average, more than 150 terminations, reductions and savings proposals, totaling nearly $25 billion each year. In the 2013 and 2014 budgets, the administration detailed more than 200 cuts, consolidations, and savings proposals, again totaling roughly $25 billion each year.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the “so-called low-hanging fruit seems to be the same low-hanging fruit from past years.” Putting the potential long-term savings from curbing duplication at $23 billion, he said the gaps in the federal budget could be filled without cutting the programs themselves. Issa also said that looking at GAO’s cross tabulations of progress on recommendations, he was “disappointed Congress hasn’t done more.”

The real progress, Issa added, will come if the Senate can approve the House-passed Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, which would standardize program reporting across agencies for greater transparency.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told Issa he agrees that the DATA Act is “one of the single biggest things you could do, a major step forward.” Dodaro added, however, that OMB is behind in its effort, as required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, to prepare a comprehensive inventory of all agency programs, which he believes might be ready by the end of the year. “With the DATA Act and GPRA, all the tools would be in place,” Dodaro said. “Then it’s just a matter of everyone rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.”

Most of the holdup, GAO’s research found, is with the massive Defense Department, though Dodaro welcomed steps announced recently by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to unify the command of the military services’ missing persons operations, which to date have been “disjointed,” he said. He also praised the Pentagon for saving millions by making all the uniformed services adopt that same camouflage uniforms.

Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., expressed concern about missing information on the administration’s 2012 information technology initiative called PortfolioStat. The effort to share basic digital services was reported by OMB to have saved $2.5 billion, but GAO’s estimate was as high as $6 billion, he noted. OMB, said the GAO staff, had omitted data from the Defense and Justice departments without noting the exclusion, an omission not yet corrected.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., characterized the administration’s report card on recommendations completely implemented as weak, to which Dodaro replied, “I agree more should be done.”

Mica suggested that House appropriators consider subtracting the projected savings from curbing duplication from the agency budgets. He told Dodaro, “It doesn’t seem like you have a hammer to get it done.”