Government Waste

New GAO Report Details Scope of Federal Government Inefficiency

The feds could save tens of billions just through better management.

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It can be difficult to get a handle on the sheer scale and scope of inefficiency and mismanagement in government, but a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) offers some assistance.

The government watchdog agency's 2016 report on government efficiency and effectiveness found 37 different areas of government that could be run more efficiently, noted a dozen instances of "fragmentation, overlap, or duplication," and identified 92 different actions that the government could pursue to save money and perform more effectively. The report demonstrates both why it is so easy to ignore these issues, and also why it is important to do so. 

One of the things the report makes clear is that these problems affect basically all aspects of government. The areas for potential cost savings or improvement run the gamut from health care to defense to infrastructure, loan programs, international affairs and government IT systems.

Very little of it is particularly exciting when looked at granularly, unless you're the sort of person who thrills to discussions of National Park Service fees and improving the definition of "geographic area" in legislation related to "cargo preference for food aid." One of the reasons bureaucracy can be so wasteful in so many ways is that, in all honesty, a lot of the little details are pretty boring. Establishing "better controls on mobile device spending"—basically, paying less for the federal government's smartphones—would result in "substantial government-wide savings," the GAO report notes.

But who wants that to be their big cause, their passion project? Just about no one, that's who.

Yet because those sorts of causes are so rarely taken up with any vigor, they are allowed to linger, and eventually they start to add up into a larger problem. Yes, efforts to address these sorts of efficiency issues are sometimes made, but rarely with any sort of enthusiasm. The GAO report notes that, of the 544 efficiency-improving actions it has proposed in the last five years of these reports, just 41 percent have been addressed. Another 34 percent were partially addressed—which suggests that at least thought about them for a moment—while 20 percent weren't dealt with at all.

Those efforts, however, do suggest the scale of the problem: Even fixing just four in ten of the problems that GAO has identified has already resulted in about $56 billion financial benefits, with another $69 billion estimated to come. The GAO doesn't put a dollar figure on what a more aggressive effort to improve efficiency in the federal government would generate, but suggests that "tens of billions of additional dollars would be saved should Congress and executive branch agencies fully address" its suggested actions. Granted, those are small figures compared with, say, the government's debt or annual deficit. But these aren't trivial sums.

To be clear, this isn't about major cuts to government, or even weeding out fraud and abuse: This is almost entirely about managerial improvement and administrative tweaks to improve operations or reduce redundancy—essentially, it's about running the government and its many operations a little better in a lot of different ways. That this is not the most thrilling project is one of the major obstacles to getting it done. But even though it may not be exciting, it's worth doing.

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  1. Government inefficiency is one thing. But what about the reach and scope of government?

    1. But what about the reach and scope of government?

      This is a probing question.

      1. The feds could save tens of billions

        That is just a rounding error.

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  2. The problem is that, when the government spends $3.9 trillion a year, what does tens of billions amount to? Hell, I’m pretty sure I’ve read Mr. Suderman dismiss similarly sized cuts in the name of irrelevance.

    1. We also have tens of millions of progtards in America. But I’m sure if a few million of them suddenly stopped living the rest of us would be at least a little better off. The same principle applies here.

  3. What we really need is a new government agency with ten or twenty thousand employees tasked with finding government waste and filing the appropriate paperwork to get it fixed.

    1. In triplicate

      1. Don’t worry, manual submissions will be a thing of the past once they get their website up and running in 2017 2019 2022. That’ll save a bundle right there.

        1. And that $10 million do,liar website will only cost $800 million to implement. Michelle Obama’s former classmate who will get the contract promises.

    2. New and Improved self-licking ice cream cone! Now 40% more efficient!

  4. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if these GAO reports and the waste they talk about are actually embraced by politicians. They represent perfect, “look over there at that squirrel!” tools to shift the debate away from things like Medicare, Medicaid, SS and defense spending, which dwarf “waste, fraud and abuse.”

  5. I thought Krugabe said Waste Fraud and Abuse was a fairy tale told by Rethuglitards to frighten little children.

    1. Well, consider the source.

    2. sure scared the hell out of me!

  6. Put a cap on budgets and you’ll see people lining up to find cost savings. Decentralize the effort by making departments and agencies choose between salaries or carefree spending practices.

    1. Anarcfist!

    2. Unfortunately the cost saving are going to be to cut the most popular services instead of cutting headcount, salaries, or pensions. Like when cities ask for more money and tell voters if they don’t comply they’ll have to stop responding to fires.

      1. It’s “statutes of Benedict Arnold vs. lifesaving medicines” all the way down.

        1. *statues

      2. When WA state voted in an initiative back in 2000 that rolled back the cost of car tabs to $32 (from an average of hundreds. Think upwards of $200 for a ten year old Honda Accord), the bureaucrats in the state Capitol had a shitfit. Even though the initiative cut total WA revenue by less than 2% annually, nearly every agency screamed how they were going to cut services to the bone, and how public education would be gutted (which made no sense, as a good chunk of that budget comes from federal dollars).

        They did everything they could to punish us peasants for rising up and cutting off any of their money. The democrats in the legislature filed suit to get the initiative overturned in court. Which they did, as the initiative also had an additional provision that required either a statewide ballot measure, or a super majority legislative approval to raise taxes. This supposedly violated a provision in the state constitution limiting ballot initiatives to one item.

        There was a massive public backlash over that court decision. So in terro for their jobs, the legislators scrambled to pass the car tab rollback on their own. Of course they were mute on the part limiting their taxation powers, but the public was far less incensed about that.

        The same bullshit will happen with the Feds if their budgets are capped. We saw a glimpse of that a few years ago when sequestration kicked.

    3. Put a cap on budgets and you’ll see national parks being shut down and aggressively patrolled for “trespassers” while studies of glacier-gender identification remain fully funded.

  7. I knew we were in trouble when they renamed the Govenrment Accounting Office.

    1. Accounting is too black and white, not enough room for “interpretation.”

  8. stupid keyboard.

  9. Why run it better when you can just take more?

  10. And just think of how much they spent to fix that misplaced “r” on all the stationery and business cards!

  11. Is this the apocryphal “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” I’m always hearing so much about?

    1. Well shit, I see P Brooks beat me to it up there. I’ll eat a bag of chocolate donettes as penance.

      1. I’ll wait until after you finish to tell you that those aren’t donettes, but rather the pickup bag from the local doggy daycare.

        1. Since I referenced my advocacy of forced coprophagia in the earlier surveillance article, it’s all good.

    2. No, this is just the cost of standard government inefficiency…

  12. Suderman these wonky detail articles are similarly not sexy, but they are some of your best work.

    1. Seconded.

      I think he’s one of Reason’s most capable.

      … for the type of person he is.

      (Caught myself at the last moment before tapping the submit rectangle, I did.)

      1. I think peter deserves credit for delving neck-deep into policy issues… people who bust his balls for being too-cosmo seem to miss the point sometimes, imo

  13. “But who wants that to be their big cause, their passion project? Just about no one, that’s who.”

    I personally don’t think the problem has anything to do with no one really wanting to take on that kind of project. The problem is that Congress keeps increasing the budget so no one has to take it on. The GAO consistently issues reports where waste fraud and abuse constitute a sizable percentage of an agencies budget. Only to have our wonderful politicians increase the budget for those same agencies a few month later. If Congress would simply freeze an inefficient agencies funding level until it can prove it has addressed all it’s inefficiencies, I’m pretty sure someone would be tasked with making efficiency “their passion project”.

    1. “But who wants that to be their big cause, their passion project? Just about no one, that’s who.”
      Isn’t the answer right, here?
      Or is this Government Accountability Offices’s job is just to create reports on how inefficient government is but not to do anything about it?
      Wouldn’t that be a good efficiency project? Making the GAO, actually “A”?

  14. essentially, it’s about running the government and its many operations a little better in a lot of different way

    I’ll bet the GAO isn’t allowed to think outside the box in this analysis, either. It probably has to take all the existing legislation and rules for granted and cannot question them. So, for example, say the Dept. of the Interior decides that the only way to successfully manage Yellowstone is to have a ranger walk every square foot of the park each year. I doubt the GAO can question whether that rule is actually necessary to achieve DOI’s goals/mandates. The GAO can only point out that the DOI is paying too much for that ranger’s boots.

    1. efficiency would be to make him/her do it barefoot to save the cost of the boots

  15. say the Dept. of the Interior decides that the only way to successfully manage Yellowstone is to have a ranger walk every square foot of the park each year. I doubt the GAO can question whether that rule is actually necessary to achieve DOI’s goals/mandates. The GAO can only point out that the DOI is paying too much for that ranger’s boots.

    The weeping and wailing if the GAO said, “We should probably just let Disney run this place. Those guys have their shit together.” would be EPIC.

    I’d love it.

    1. “In other news, stocks charge ahead on news that Disney will purchases Yellowstone park from the US government for more than the annual GDP of Wyoming; Expects to turn a profit within five years.”

  16. I’ve seen some of this first hand at my work. The problem is that for managers in government, the incentives are all political. For example there’s this dufus with a Forrest Gump haircut who manages this project that I work on as a contractor. Before he came along we pretty much managed it ourselves, and we got shit done. Then the project started being used by multiple government offices, so they took over management of it. Well, some offices have more people and use the project more, so naturally they would find more problems and request more features. Well, that wasn’t fair, and the representatives of the other offices complained loudly that some offices got more requests done than they did. So the dufus with the Forrest Gump haircut put a moratorium on all work for several months, resulting in me and my team literally having nothing to do. Then he started allowing work, with each office getting an equal amount of requests. This of courses set the pace at the lowest common denominator. But it is fair. The dufus’ incentives are all political. He wants to keep the representatives from the other offices from bitching. If efficiency suffers, why should he care? It’s not his money, and it’s not like being efficient will result in more profits because it’s not a business.

    Unless the incentives change, and they won’t, then waste will always be rampant in government. It’s the nature of the beast.

    1. And it’s not like I can complain to anyone. The watchdogs only care if the waste is caused by the contractor. If it is because of how the government manages things, then nothing will happen. Oh wait. They might cut the budget to reflect the lowered amount of work that the dufus is allowing to get done, but not punish him for his wasteful management. So if I complain I might lose my job as a result of the lower budget. So I keep my yap shut, as I’m sure thousands and thousands of others do.

      1. Will the dufus buy big screens for the office and his home office in order not to end the year with a surplus? 😀

  17. I believe Nancy already informed us there is nothing left to cut.

  18. “”The feds could save tens of billions just through better management.””

    ….You seem to be assuming they *want* to.

    1. the federal government could not find it’s ass with both hands and a map…management, better or otherwise is a foreign concept.

  19. Anecdote: the head honcho of the small bureau for which I worked used to be a regular old bureaucrat, working and living like any other run-of-the-mill schlub. The newish guy (an Obama insider) has a car, driver, and personal assistant at his beck & call.

    1. And good bureaucrat knows to pile on the fat early in their new-career.

      Then, when the GAO or whomever comes calling suggesting that budgets have gotten out of hand, you can get great credit for ‘eliminating waste’; i.e. – paring things back *slightly* from their rapid expansion.

  20. “Listen; if we don’t spend that money, they’ll give it to somebody who will, like the EPA. Is that what you want? Is it?”

    1. exactly

  21. This all sounds nice but it never turns out to be that simple. The government has gotten so large, you can’t even hope to make it more efficient now. Rather than worrying about efficiency, the first step is to worry about scope. Get the government out of about half or more of the things it does and narrow its scope down to something manageable. Once you have done that, then try and make it more efficient.

  22. Speaking of the size and scope of government, David Brooks excreted a column the other day breathtaking in its incoherence and rambling thumbsuckery.

    1. David Brooks excreted a column the other day breathtaking in its incoherence and rambling thumbsuckery.

      Which is to say, “it was Tuesday”

      1. Which is to say, “it was Tuesday a day he wrote”

        Fixed.

        1. you call what he does writing? you must have confused him with someone else…

  23. The report demonstrates both why it is so easy to ignore these issues, and also why it is important to do so.

    So if what it’s important to do — ignoring these issues — is easy, no problem, right?

  24. Sorry but I do NOT want more efficient government. There is precisely zero chance that any cost savings will come back to the taxpayer and efficient tyranny is worse than inefficient.

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  26. But who wants that to be their big cause, their passion project?

    Jim Hacker?

  27. In other news, the government has decided to cut costs by discontinuing GOA Efficiency reporting.

    1. and….”One of the reasons bureaucracy can be so wasteful in so many ways is that, in all honesty, a lot of the little details are pretty boring.”

      Bullshit! Its wasteful precisely because their is zero incentive to pay attention to the details. In fact, most government agencies are incentivized to do the exact opposite lest their budgets be cut the following year because of spending shortfalls. In the private sector, many people make large sums of money for paying attention to such “pretty boring” details.

  28. The GAO doesn’t put a dollar figure on what a more aggressive effort to improve efficiency in the federal government would generate, but suggests that “tens of billions of additional dollars would be saved should Congress and executive branch agencies fully address” its suggested actions.

    I would rather have a less efficient government that was 20% of its current size. Does the GOA have any numbers on what that would cost?

    1. think about the layoffs and the resulting panic in the streets…oh wait it’s just a bunch of bureaucratic zombies shuffling around….

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  31. Switch to zero based budgeting with a hybrid accrual accounting system and that should help solve the problem.

    I also think the government should just downsize its workforce. Federal government GS employees cannot easily be fired or terminated. If they’re bad they are simple reassigned somewhere else. I’ve seen first hand how some of these pension-leeches operate. It’s even worse when they double dip. Serve 20 years in the military, get 50% pension, claim disability, get disability pay, then also use disability status to get Federal Government Civilian job and serve the minimum required at a higher GS level and retire with an, undeserved, rather plush pension.

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  41. RE: New GAO Report Details Scope of Federal Government Inefficiency
    The feds could save tens of billions just through better management.

    Government inefficiency?
    Get real!
    The ruling elitist turds know exactly how to embezzle our money to their foreign bank accounts and cover it up. Just ask their cronies.
    Efficiency at its apex.

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