White House wants to root out copycat programs - starting with STEM

Friday - 5/17/2013, 1:45pm EDT

On the "Federal Drive"

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The White House wants to cut the number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs run by federal agencies in half.

The Obama administration's proposed fiscal 2014 budget called for consolidating or eliminating 116 of the government's 226 STEM initiatives and centralizing the coordination of STEM programs under just three agencies: the Education Department, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution.

"This structure will help ensure that related programs are coordinated and that resources are focused on programs that deliver the most impact per dollar in their respective domains," said John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, testifying before a Senate Budget Committee panel Thursday on government performance.

The committee's Task Force on Government Performance, chaired by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), examined how the administration aims to root out duplicative federal programs.

In recent years, STEM efforts, which account for about $3 billion in spending, have become a poster child for government duplication. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2012 as much as 83 percent of federal STEM programs overlapped with at least one other program.

The White House's proposal calls for the elimination of 78 programs altogether — which represents about $176 million in savings, Holdren told the committee.

"Obviously, there are some folks who are not pleased by losing those particular programs, and so we've heard about that," Holdren said. "But I think on the whole, the agencies appreciate and understand the reasons for this approach. They understand the need for greater coordination, coherence, efficiency and ease of evaluation."

The savings will be repurposed into STEM efforts, Holdren said. Overall, the White House is seeking $3.1 billion next year for STEM — 6 percent more than Congress appropriated last year.

GAO: Copycat programs all over government

The administration's STEM proposal is one of the government's first visible steps in reversing some of the duplication that riddles the federal landscape and which some lawmakers have seized on as examples of government waste.

STEM is only one of a number of areas prone to duplicative and overlapping programs pinpointed each year by the Government Accountability Office.

Agencies, however, have been slow to heed GAO's recommendations for phasing such programs out. Agencies have fully implemented just 12 percent of the 300 recommendations made by GAO since 2011 in the area of duplication. Twenty-one percent of GAO's recommendations have not been addressed at all, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told the committee.

But while agencies often get the blame for wasteful programs, Congress, itself, can contribute to the problem.

"One of the things I see is members of Congress propose new programs and then they don't even look to see whether there is a program already addressing the area," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

Ayotte is not alone in that assessment.

A bipartisan bill introduced last month would require the Congressional Research Service to analyze proposed legislation to determine whether it creates new programs that duplicate the work of existing ones.

What causes duplicative programs?

Dodaro said different factors contribute to the build-up of copycat programs.

"There's an accretion over time," he said. "Surface transportation is one. We start out with the interstate-highway system in the '50s. We added, over decades, to come up with 100 programs. So it happens over time. Secondly, you'll have a broad program to, say, provide training to someone who's unemployed. And somebody will say, 'Well, we're not getting to the veterans; we're not getting the Native Americans; we're not getting to the youth.' So, we need programs in those areas as opposed to figuring out how to make the basic program work more effectively for those targets."

The Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010, which Warner sponsored, gave agencies new tools to measure program performance and to cut ties to less-effective programs.

"Oftentimes, agencies will be happy to trumpet their most successful programs," Warner said. But not so much the less successful ones. "And in an area of tight fiscal constraint, we have to not only look at those programs that are doing well, but we have to look at those programs that are underperforming."

The data from agencies on program effectiveness is now starting to roll in, he said.

"As we go through these challenging times, hopefully that will be a guidepost for us," he added.

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