Duplication in Government Programs: Hidden in Opaque Federal Spending Data


On Tuesday, April 9th, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its third annual report on duplicative government spending, Actions Needed to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Other Financial Benefits. The GAO is required by law to conduct routine investigations of duplicative federal activity and report annually to Congress with recommendations for consolidation or elimination. The mandate was inserted by Senator Coburn as an amendment to an increase in the debt limit in 2010.
To comply, the GAO conducted “a systematic and practical examination across the federal government to provide reasonable coverage for areas of potential fragmentation, overlap and duplication government-wide” over three years (p233-234). The 2013 report identified 31 new areas of duplication, fragmentation, overlap, or potential financial benefits, with 81 suggested actions to address the issues identified. In total, the GAO has identified over 160 areas with more than 300 specific actions where the government can increase efficiency or effectiveness. If fully implemented, the GAO estimates savings of tens of billions of dollars annually.
The amount of estimated savings sounds impressive, but the GAO’s method of identifying the savings certainly wasn’t.
The GAO started by identifying which agencies obligated more than $10 million for budget functions and sub-functions in FY2010, using the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) MAX information system. The MAX information system is a nonpublic budget wiki, for federal employees. Watchdog groups and citizens do not have access to the same budget information and cannot conduct similar investigations.
Next, the GAO analyzed documents – strategic plans, performance and accountability reports, budget justifications, and independent reports from authorities like the CBO, inspectors general, and the CRS – to find and isolate areas of possible fragmentation, overlap, or duplication.  In other words, the GAO didn’t look at program-level spending itself – just documents summarizing the programs and the spending.
By its own explanation, the GAO takes this approach to the examination because “it is not practical to examine every instance of potential duplication or opportunities for cost savings across the federal government” (p234). The GAO didn’t look at a list of programs with amounts spent – because none exists! The federal government has no master list of programs – a 2010 law requires OMB to create one, and the first list is still in production (p21-p23)  – and even if it did, there is no way to connect such a list with the amount of money being spent on each program. So, foraging through the sea of government documents is the only method of review available to the GAO.
It took the GAO three years to identify the federal catfish inspection programs in triplicate, inefficiency of fragmented military uniform procurement, and overlap in almost 80% of drug treatment programs. The public couldn’t have done this analysis at all, because the public doesn’t have access to data on agencies’ budget actions. Unless the government publishes all its spending data, and electronically matches programs to spending, we’ll never get a handle on government waste. Fortunately, that’s what data transparency is all about – publish everything, and use consistent data identifiers and formats to connect related information.
The bipartisan DATA Act, which passed the House, but not the Senate, last year, would require exactly these actions for federal spending. Under the DATA Act, the federal government would publish all executive branch spending data, including the budget actions that are currently hidden from the public, and develop the data standards necessary to match programs to dollars. During a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the duplicative spending report, GAO Comptroller Gene Dodaro expressed as much support as an unbiased auditor can. Dodaro said, “I think that transparency is needed. I think there needs to be a statutory underpinning so it’s enduring over time and there is consistency. Data standards need to be put in place. I’m very supportive of the need to have that type of legislation that would require that level of transparency and from that transparency can lead to better questions, can lead to better oversight, and hopefully better results.”

Under the DATA Act, a complete review of government expenditures could be conducted in real time. Citizens could access the information and conduct independent investigations. The GAO could electronically identify government fragmentation, overlap, and duplication – using the source data, not the summaries-of-summaries it had to use this year. Identifying waste is the first step to trimming a bloated federal budget. The DATA Act provides the transparency the GAO and citizens need to do that.