GAO pushes for more oversight of interagency programs

Monday - 12/12/2011, 9:10pm EST

Chris Mihm, managing director of strategic issues, GAO

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Interagency programs would benefit from more Congressional oversight, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

In addition, the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 gives Congress greater ability to root out duplicative or fragmented programs that result from agencies working separately to address the same issues, according to the report.

The law gives Congress "a vehicle for more directly looking at cross-cutting program efforts," GAO Managing Director of Strategic Issues Chris Mihm told Federal News Radio in an interview.

GPRA 2.0 requires the White House to spell out governmentwide priorities every two years. Agencies must review program performance quarterly rather than annually.

"If you think about any meaningful thing that government wants to achieve, it's not achieved by any one organization working in isolation," Mihm said. "Rather, it's most often achieved by several agencies working together, often with contractors, state and local governments and the not-for-profit sector."

For example, GAO found 15 agencies administer food-safety laws. While each law may have made sense in isolation, Mihm called the result "collective irrationality" that leads to confusion, as highlighted by the 2010 recall of salmonella-infested eggs. Agencies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Department of Agriculture to the Food and Drug Administration played a role.

The "whole of government approach" that GAO recommended could include holding hearings in which officials from multiple agencies testify about how they are working together to achieve measurable outcomes, Mihm said.

Lawmakers could ask questions that examine agencies' coordination, such as, "'Collectively, what are we getting from your performance?' or 'How are you working with stakeholders?'" Mihm said.

The report gives three examples of bipartisan, bicameral Congressional oversight that led agencies to improve program outcomes. The Education Department has consolidated overlapping programs targeting non-English speakers. The Defense Department has shortened the time it takes for personnel and contractors to receive security clearances. The IRS has increased the amount of taxpayers filing electronically, saving the agency time and money, and is nearing its goal of 80 percent of returns being e-filed.

The last example, Mihm said, was "heroic."

"Right now, the IRS is getting closer to meeting its goal through the combined efforts of Congress and the agency in working together and understanding where the performance gaps are and how those gaps can be filled," he said.

While Congressional committees at times seem as stovepiped as certain agencies, Mihm said some committees are doing a good job of looking across organizational boundaries.

The House and Senate Budget Committees, for example, "are perfectly positioned to lead an effort in the Congress that adopts a more crosscutting perspective," he said.

Those committees draft a budget resolution each year. They could also draft a "performance resolution in which Congress collectively lays out its markers for the performance that it wants from the executive branch, and which would look explicitly across organizational boundaries," Mihm said.

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