Avoid waste: Make government spending transparent

On March 1st the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report demonstrating the necessity of interagency coordination, up to date information and federal transparency if taxpayers’ money is to be best spent to best effect.

The first annual GAO report was requested by Congress to identify where government programs are overlapping, duplicated or fragmented. The report has identified 81 areas in which different agencies or offices have duplicate goals or activities, outlining ways these instances could be addressed.

It is estimated that with the report’s suggested measures, potential savings to the federal budget could total over $100 billion. Senator Coburn (R-Okla) has said “This report also shows we could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year without cutting services. And, in many cases, smart consolidations will improve service. GAO has identified a mother lode of government waste and duplication that should keep Congress busy for the rest of the year.”

The case of U.S. foreign assistance operations in Afghanistan shows the need for a centralized data system to improve visibility of individual development projects and promotion of interagency cooperation and coordination. This is particularly necessary in an environment such as Afghanistan where several agencies are involved in similar efforts dispersed throughout the country, and with the U.S. having 12 departments, 25 agencies and 60 separate government offices involved in administering foreign assistance: “A USAID official responsible for developing the Afghan Info database noted that Afghan Info did not include data from any other agency […] officials have acknowledged that having access to project data from other agencies would contribute to better project planning, eliminate potential overlap, and allow agencies to leverage each other’s resources more effectively.” P 121 Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue

The same goes for many other areas of public spending: “Domestic food and nutrition assistance is provided through a decentralized system of primarily 18 different federal programs that shows signs of overlap and inefficient use of resources. In addition to USDA, HHS, DHS, and multiple state and local government and nonprofit organizations work together to administer a complex network of programs and providers. GAO has found that some of these programs provide comparable benefits to similar or overlapping populations.” P 125 (ibid)

In the case of transportation: “Available information is outdated and incomplete. Additionally, departments have not aligned program requirements. For instance, a 2009 report by the National Resource Center for Human Service Transportation Coordination found that three federal departments providing transportation services—the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education—had yet to coordinate their planning processes or requirements with the Department of Transportation. GAO found that these steps still had not occurred as of the end of 2010. These departments account for 50 of the 80 existing programs identified.” P 136 (ibid)

Demonstrating the need for a common, centralized government data system, the report suggests that “value can be derived from realizing cost savings through […] enhancing information sharing through data standardization and system integration.” P 63 (ibid)

The report states; “Without quality data on program outcomes, these agencies lack key information that could help them better manage their programs. In addition, such information would enable congressional decision makers and others to make decisions to better realign resources, if necessary, and to identify opportunities for consolidating or eliminating some programs.” P 45 (ibid)

In the current fiscal environment it is imperative to make informed decisions on where investment can be made and where cuts should take place. It is only with a view of the whole picture that the U.S. government can ensure taxpayers’ money is being spent to best effect.

House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in a statement in December 2010, “There is much fat in these budgets, which makes some cuts obvious. Others will be more difficult, but necessary to improve the efficiency of U.S. efforts and accomplish more with less.” If these cuts are to take place, we need to start by knowing where the government is spending, and to what effect.

Without a view of the big picture of government spending, informed decisions about where to spend money or cut services cannot be made. Just as donors of foreign assistance must share information and coordinate their aid activities at the international level to make the most of the money spent, greater interagency coordination and information sharing mechanisms are needed on the national level to maximize the impact of taxpayers’ money.

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