More than $18B spent on 'outdated and outlandish' projects, Coburn report says

Tuesday - 10/16/2012, 6:18pm EDT

A new report on government waste released by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) shines a light on eye-popping examples of frivolous federal spending.

In all, Coburn's "Wastebook 2012" details spending on 100 government projects, programs and initiatives at a cost of $18 billion.

But aside from highlighting the bizarre government-backed projects — such as a National Science Foundation grant to construct a robotic squirrel — the report also points to potentially systemic issues affecting federal management.

Too often, "important programs go bankrupt while outdated and outlandish projects continue to be funded," Coburn wrote in the report's introduction.

Unproductive Congress

In the first item on the list, Coburn turned the lens back on Congress, which this past year became the most unproductive batch of lawmakers since 1947, he said.

Congress has approved only 61 bills, so far. The Senate, in particular, has held fewer votes and considered fewer amendments than in any recent year, the report stated.

"Whether it was failing to hold oversight hearings, pass laws, cut unnecessary spending, or simply cast votes on amendments, the U.S. Congress let taxpayers down in 2012," the report stated.

Strategic sourcing

"Clipping coupons, comparing prices, buying in bulk and even shopping on double coupon days, many Americans are doing everything they can to save a penny wherever they can to stretch a dollar further during these difficult economic times," the report stated. "The stewards of taxpayers' dollars in Washington unfortunately are not being as thrifty."

Agencies too often ignore strategic sourcing, which allows them to pool their shopping lists together and leverage collective buying power, Coburn's report stated. It cited as evidence a recent Government Accountability Office report, which found agencies are missing out on as much as $50 billion annually.

Updating GSA schedules

The report pointed to efforts by the General Services Administration to weed out companies from GSA contract schedules selling unnecessary and outdated products, such as typewriters and photographic equipment.

The agency wants to shift to a demand-based model which will save millions of dollars "by phasing out out outdated products and services, and eliminating contract agreements that have low or no performance," according to GSA.

That effort is expected to save $24 million annually.

Grant management

Coburn's report identified as much as $2 million lost each year on unnecessary service fees for defunct grant accounts.

Until an agency officially closes these "phantom" accounts, they continue to accumulate $173,000 per month in fees, the report stated — even if they contain a zero-dollar balance.

'Outdated' NASA database

A database at NASA ostensibly used by managers to share best practices has rarely been updated, the agency's inspector general reported. And employees found the system "outdated, not user friendly, and generally unhelpful."

Nevertheless, NASA pays $771,000 a year to maintain the Lessons Learned Information Systems database, according to the Coburn report.

Energy's apps contest

Last spring, the Energy Department launched a contest for software application developers. The Apps for Energy contest offered $100,000 in prizes to developers who created applications to track energy usage from data provided by utility companies.

The only problem: "The agency was looking for an app that already exists," according to Coburn's report, which listed a handful of energy-tracker apps.

"Instead of investing taxpayer dollars in this project, the department should let the marketplace determine the best apps for consumers," the report stated.

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