GAO Highlights Inefficiencies in the Federal Government

On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on possible duplication and overlap by government agencies. This is the second annual report released by GAO, a result of an amendment from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) to the debt ceiling increase in January 2010. The report not only identifies areas of government duplication, overlap and fragmentation, but also other cost saving opportunities beyond its original mandate. Such examples identified by GAO are not necessarily the same thing as "waste," since some complex problems may require overlap or duplication among agencies; however, these are areas where GAO believes there could be more coordination or consolidation.

First, the report cites 32 possible instances of overlap, from using different electronic systems for the $1 billion spent on federal background checks to 15 different financial literacy programs. The report also noted some instances in which cooperation between agencies was found to be useful. The second section of the report listed 19 other possible ways for particular agencies to reduce spending. The report's recommendations were also wide-ranging, from the Air Force renegotiating food contracts to the Treasury Department replacing the $1 bill with a $1 coin. Below are some of the areas of duplication that GAO has identified.

Sample GAO Recommendations
Identified Inefficiencies Possible Solutions
Food and Agriculture Protection More centrally coordinated food safety and food and agriculture protection, rather than the current fragmented system
Unmanned Aircraft Consolidate 15 acquisition programs into one body responsible for keeping track of unmanned aircraft purchases and needs
Counter-IED Efforts Develop a database of all counter-IED programs to better track all efforts being taken
Economic Development
Surface Freight Transportation Develop a coordinated strategy for surface freight transportation, instead of the many programs that are spread among surface transportation
Health Research Funding Have NIH, DOD, and VA share information better to avoid duplication of research
Homeland Security/Law Enforcement
DOJ Grants Examine possibility of consolidating grant programs and coordinate better across programs to avoid making multiple awards to the same recipient
Diesel Emissions Collaboration between agencies about the need for various programs for reducing diesel emissions and consolidation of tax expenditures with that purpose

Along with the 2012 report, GAO released an assessment of the progress being made a result of its 2011 report. Of the 81 areas identified in last year’s report, 4 were completely addressed (5 percent), 60 were partially addressed (74 percent), and 17 (21 percent) had not been addressed at all (as a result, at least a few of the report's recommendations are reprised from last year). It seems that the existence of this annual report from GAO may be having a useful effect in shifting the focus to reducing inefficiencies. 

For example, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) stated that 21 areas mentioned in the 2012 report were addressed in the President’s budget and that three-quarters of last year's recommendations that could be dealt with through executive action have been addressed. Also, the transportation bill still in the works in Congress may consolidate 70 of the over 100 programs involved in surface transportation fragmentation that was identified in last year’s report.

GAO estimated that if all the actions from the 2011 and 2012 reports were implemented, tens of billions of dollars could be saved each year. Still, eliminating inefficiencies will not pull us out of our budget hole; only difficult substantive changes can do that. But it certainly is a step in the right direction.