GAO and the Department of Redundancy

Real increases in both effectiveness and efficiency are waiting to be harvested. This is unlikely to happen, however, if the system isn't driven to do so.
by | March 14, 2011

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued its most important report in a generation. The report documents duplication -- not waste, fraud or abuse -- in hundreds of government programs created by Congress and kept alive by the shared interests of federal, state, local and nongovernmental organizations all across America.

There are, just for starters, 108 programs dealing with surface transportation, 82 that monitor teacher quality, 80 for economic development, 56 encouraging "financial literacy" and 17 grant programs for disaster preparedness.

The report is already gaining traction in the popular press. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have all weighed in. The multiplicity of programs is woven into the warp and woof of both the legislative and executive branches. We'll need to see more attention, and more outrage, if we're to see any improvement.

Most observers blame the "stovepipes" or "silos" created by federal legislation. The federal government has long proven unable or unwilling to collaborate across organizational boundaries. The GAO report documents the extent of this problem.

But it's clear from the report that real increases in both effectiveness and efficiency are right there waiting to be harvested. This is unlikely to happen, however, if the system isn't driven to do so. We've been here and done that several times before, with little or no lasting effect. Both Presidents Reagan and Clinton tried to collapse categorical programs into block grants, and yet the GAO says we have now more programs than ever.

The history of the growth in categorical grant programs (not the whole story here, but most of it) can be found in James L. Sundquist's Making Federalism Work and Harold Seidman's Politics, Position, and Power.

In the chapter "Cooperative Federalism," Seidman quotes Terry Sanford, former governor of North Carolina, in describing these "vertical functional autocracies': The lines of authority, the concerns and interests, the flow of money, and the direction of programs run straight down like a number of pickets stuck in the ground. There is, as in a picket fence, a connecting cross slat, but that does little to support anything. In this metaphor, it stands for the [state] government. It holds the pickets in line; it does not bring them together."

Seidman describes how the interlocking interests and actions of the actors in federal, state, local and nongovernmental organizations create and protect these funding silos. A common term in Washington is the "Iron Triangle," consisting of a federal agency, a Congressional committee and a K Street interest group.

The GAO report itself notes the urgent need for change and offers some concrete opportunities for sizable savings even in relatively small policy areas. For example, the report "developed a range of options that could reduce federal revenue losses by up to $5.7 billion annually by addressing potentially duplicative policies designed to boost domestic ethanol production."

Given the complexity of these programs, the challenge of improving federal oversight is far from simple. Actors at every level respond to incentives to both produce and accept positive performance numbers to keep funds flowing.

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Congress, where the programs are designed. As Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said to CBS News, "Anybody who says we don't look like fools up here hasn't read the report." Too many committees, too many subcommittees, too much staff -- this is a problem that deserves serious attention.

It is also an old problem. According to its own history, when President Carter signed the bill creating the Department of Energy in August 1977, "Secretary James Schlesinger's initial task was to meld all the headquarters, field, and staff programs from the component agencies ... into a unified Department of Energy with about 20,000 employees and an annual budget of $10.4 billion." As it happened, I was put in charge of developing planning and budgeting systems for the new department. The integration of these independent parts was no easy task, and it didn't help that the Secretary had to testify 216 times before various Congressional committees that first year.

I'm more optimistic now. We have two things going for us. First, the Internet, with the help of the Obama Administration's Transparency Initiative, will spread information about the costs of these siloed programs. The problem will become harder to ignore. And second, the insiders may not be able to resist the pressures for change arising from the budget crisis.

So I'm glad that the GAO has "belled the cat" with this report. Let's see how Congress responds.

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