Lucie Lang /

Program Duplication Report: Should Scientists Analyze Toy Guns?

GAO's fifth installment urges Congress to intervene, cites 12 new areas of overlap.

In presenting 66 actions agencies or Congress could take to reduce program duplication and fragmentation, the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday placed most of the onus for achieving new efficiency on the legislative branch.

“Where there has been good progress, it took congressional action to achieve savings, even though agencies are moving in the right direction,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said as he presented GAO’s fifth annual report on duplication to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We need legislation even though there are entrenched constituencies because the problems need more visibility.”  

Curbing overlap is “mainly consistent with what agencies facing tight budgets want to do,” and the rate of implementation is 40 percent on changes that affect one agency, but only 25 percent on proposals that require multiple agencies to help, Dodaro said.

The 2015 report covers familiar proposals in 24 areas to curb duplication in Pentagon weapons acquisition and Medicare payments. But “we suggest 20 actions to address 12 new areas in which we found evidence of fragmentation, overlap, or duplication in government missions such as agriculture, defense, health, homeland security, information technology, international affairs, and science and the environment,” Dodaro testified. “In addition, we present 46 opportunities for executive branch agencies or Congress to take actions to reduce the cost of government operations or enhance revenue collections for the U.S. Treasury across 12 areas of government.”

A scorecard of past responsiveness to GAO recommendations showed that the government had fully addressed 37 percent, partially addressed 39 percent and left 20 percent not addressed, resulting in $20 billion in savings over the past five years. ”There’s plenty of money still left on the table,” the comptroller said, projecting another $80 billion in savings by 2023.

Highlights Dodaro mentioned included the mission of consumer safety oversight, which is a “patchwork of 20 agencies, fragmented and overlapping,” he said. Scientists at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology are in charge of examining the markings on toy and imitation firearms, he noted. Why not establish a coordinating body to efficiently transfer that task to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has grown to be accepted over the years?

In non-emergency medical transport, GAO noted, there are 42 programs at six agencies with a coordinating council that hasn’t met since 2008.

The U.S. Family Health Plan within the Defense Health System since the 1980s has had a special status, Dodaro said, but the advent of Tricare managed care in the 1990s has rendered it duplicative, and millions of dollars could be saved through a “carefully crafted transition,” he said.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve, formed during an oil shortage in the 1970s, now has plenty of reserves, he added. A reexamination by the Energy Department could potentially reap billions while reducing administrative costs and repairing infrastructure.

Cancer hospitals that rely on 1990s-era special payment for in-hospital care and non-negotiable fees, he added, could save perhaps $500 million by reorganizing to reflect the modern approach of home care.

Finally, Dodaro singled out the underexploited tool of strategic sourcing of procurement—a cross-agency priority goal of the Obama administration—saying the government relies on it for only 5 percent of purchasing compared with 90 percent in the private sector. “Even a gain of 1 percent would cut $4 billion,” he said, asking Congress to step in because the Office of Management and Budget has yet to set metrics and goals.

“Strategic sourcing is the definition of low-hanging fruit,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to which Dodaro replied that he has urged the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy to take a more aggressive approach to setting targets.

Ranking member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., embraced the report’s proposal that the Homeland Security Department “mitigate potential duplication or gaps by consistently capturing and maintaining data from overlapping vulnerability assessments of critical infrastructure” and improving data sharing.

“More than 100 committees and subcommittees oversee DHS,” Carper said. “One of my goals is to ratchet down that oversight and give relief, though these issues are complex [and] difficult to solve because they cut across agencies.”

When Dodoro appeared Tuesday afternoon at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, its chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, listed his own highlights from GAO’s report. He noted that eight agencies administer more than 100 programs to support individuals with serious mental illness, and that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains 21 separate systems to monitor sea surface temperature and 14 to measure just ocean surface wind speeds. 

Robert Shea, a former OMB official under President George W. Bush now a principal with Grant Thornton LLP, said the new report “perfectly threads the needle between progress and what more needs to be done. It credits those past recommendations with racking up billions in savings over a decade, but notes new areas,” he told Government Executive. “OMB and Congress need to make sure there is an oversight mechanism for overlap and duplication so we don’t miss an opportunity for better coordination.”

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