New GAO Report Details Scope of Federal Government Inefficiency

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


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.