Are agencies doing enough to weed out redundant programs?

Wednesday - 4/9/2014, 12:36pm EDT

GAO's Nicole Clowers speaks with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp

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Three years after the Government Accountability Office first reported that federal agencies were managing a maze of potentially duplicative federal programs, the watchdog agency has added nearly a dozen more areas to its tally of duplication and overlap.

"It's always important that agencies are working to be as efficient as possible but never more so given today's fiscal environment," said Nicole Clowers, director of financial markets and community investment issues at GAO, in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. "And one way they could be more efficient is to weed out programs that are fragmented or overlapping or duplicating one another."

GAO's latest report identifies a total of 26 areas for potential cost-savings. The issues range from fragmented operations to out-and-out copycat programs being run by multiple agencies including:

Army workforce planning: The Army uses two information systems to plan workforce needs relating to industrial operations, but the Army hasn't studied whether there's unnecessary duplication between the multi-billion dollar programs. GAO said the Army should increase leadership attention to study whether overlap exists between the two programs, which could net millions in annual savings.

Contracting for Defense health care professionals: Currently, each military department operates its own medical facilities and each typically contracts separately for its own doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. Of the total $1.14 billion spent on health-care professionals by military departments in fiscal 2011, just 8 percent was spent on joint-use contracts.

Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA) overlap: GAO has identified potential overlap between the federal workers' compensation program, which pays out benefits to federal employees injured on the job and is run by the Labor Department, and unemployment benefits, which are typically administered by individual states. While some people may be eligible for both programs, there exists the potential for improper payments from individuals who do not report their FECA payments to state unemployment authorities. GAO recommended the Labor Department explore a way to share FECA compensation information with states.

Interoperable radio communication systems: The departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Treasury have all gone separate ways on developing communication systems. DHS' systems — 20 different radio systems at a cost of $1 billion — for example, are often not interoperable between its own components. GAO recommended better collaboration among agencies in developing these systems.

Since 2011, when the first report was issued, GAO has identified 162 areas of potential overlap and duplication and 380 actions executive-branch agencies should take to lead to greater efficiencies.

Agencies and Congress have made progress addressing about 80 percent of those prior recommendations, according to GAO. Clowers said agency and congressional action on those recommendations has already netted about $10 billion in savings. (Story continues below chart)

"Many of GAO's recommendations deal with some of the most complex and challenging areas across the federal government," said Beth Cobert, the Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, in a post on the OMB blog. "Fully addressing them is a long-term process that in many cases will take years to implement — a fact that GAO recognizes."

Cobert said President Barack Obama's second-term management agenda, which Cobert is tasked with spearheading, also focuses on some of the same issues identified by GAO, such as cutting improper payments, realizing real-estate savings and consolidating data centers.

However, a lack of reliable budget and performance information could stymie agencies' further efforts to root out duplicative programs, GAO's report noted.

"Without knowing the full cost of implementing programs, it is difficult for executive branch agencies or Congress to gauge the magnitude of the federal commitment to a particular area of activity or the extent to which associated federal programs are effectively and efficiently achieving shared goals," the GAO report stated.

Last spring, OMB, for the first time, launched an online inventory of agency programs. However, GAO said it has concerns "about the usefulness of the information being developed and the extent to which it might be able to assist executive branch and congressional efforts to identify and address fragmentation, overlap, and duplication."

In the absence of clear-cut guidance from OMB, agencies used varying criteria to compile their lists, which limits the ability to make comparisons between agencies.

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