Federal Program Inventory Deemed Useless

Senator Tom Coburn is retiring in a few weeks, but he leaves behind a legislative legacy of attempting to create more coherency and transparency about what the federal government does.

Senator Coburn has long campaigned against the seeming incomprehensibility of the federal government’s many programs. He sponsored two pieces of legislation in 2010 to address his concerns. The first bill requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to annually assess the fragmentation, overlap and duplication of federal programs. The second bill requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to create and publish on the Internet an inventory of all federal programs. Duplicate Worlds by Victor Habbick

Background. Over the past four years, GAO has issued a series of reports identifying about 90 areas where the executive branch or Congress could reduce fragmentation, overlap, or duplication of programs. It uses a definition of “program” that it had developed.

OMB developed a range of definitions of what constitutes a program, and piloted this approach in 2012 among 11 agencies. It then issued guidance to the entire government later that year on how to develop their inventories, allowing the use of a range of definitions. It completed and published its first inventory in May 2013 on a governmentwide website. OMB’s longer-term plan was to start with requiring agencies to provide basic information and iteratively increase the availability of descriptive information over time to include data required by the law, such as program-level budget information. In its first inventory, OMB lists 1,524 programs.

But, because of new statutory changes, and pending legislative changes to the original inventory law, OMB chose to suspend further development of the inventory until things became clearer as to what these legislative changes might do to efforts to build upon the existing inventory.

GAO Assesses the 2013 Inventory. GAO issued a report last week assessing OMB’s initial inventory. The report sharply concludes “the inventory is not a useful tool for decision making.” It notes that, because OMB allowed agencies to use different definitions of what constitutes a program, “similar programs across agencies may not be identifiable.” For example, it compared a list of 179 programs it had developed that support Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education and found it was only able to match 9 exactly with programs listed in OMB’s inventory (with 51 others inferred based on program descriptions provided).

GAO says that agencies used six different approaches when developing their inventories. For example, 14 of the 24 largest agencies used their budget program activity lines as the basis for their inventory. Other developed their inventories around services to specific customer groups, or the outputs of major programs or services, or the agency’s organizational office structures.

Legislation Affecting the Inventory. Two pieces of legislation – one passed and one pending – would significantly affect OMB’s efforts to develop a useful inventory. As a result, OMB is reluctant to continue its planned efforts because they will create a great deal of wasted effort by agencies.

The first piece of legislation affecting the program inventory is the recently passed Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act). This law requires agencies to report quarterly reporting of funding available to or spent by agencies at different levels of aggregation – including program level. The Department of the Treasury and OMB are developing uniform, governmentwide standards to meet these requirements, to be implemented by May 2017. How these standards are written would affect the collection and reporting of data required under the 2010 program inventory law.

The second piece of legislation would significantly alter the program inventory. It has been passed by the House and is pending in the Senate. The Taxpayer Right-to-Know Act would require estimates of the number of beneficiaries served, the number of federal employees managing the program, and the number of contractors or grantees that support the program. It is unclear if this bill will pass, but if so, it would dramatically change the data collection requirements for the inventory.

So What’s Next? There are legitimate technical concerns about what constitutes a “program,” as I’ve written about before. OMB’s suspension makes sense, given the uncertainty about the potential implications of recent or pending legislation. GAO recommends that future inventories:

• Present program-level budget information. This is required in the inventory law, but wasn’t required by OMB for the 2013 inventory effort. OMB had initially planned to request this additional information for the 2014 inventory but suspended the 2014 effort when the DATA Act was passed because it also requires similar information to be collected and reported on a separate website. Given limited funding for these efforts, OMB says it wants to leverage information from each of these websites to reduce potential duplication, costs, and errors as well as reduce the collection burdens on agencies.

• Provide complete program information. The inventory law also requires descriptions of how each program contributes to an agency’s goals. GAO found that 7 of the 24 major agencies did not show how programs supported these agencies’ strategic goals, and 13 of the 24 did not show how programs supported agencies’ strategic objectives (objectives are a more discrete level of description of what agencies do. Agencies this past year conducted analytic reviews of about 300 strategic objectives for the first time).

• Consult with stakeholders. GAO says none of the 24 agencies consulted with outside stakeholders – Congress, state or local governments, or advocacy groups — on how they should develop their inventories, even though OMB’s guidance directed agencies to do so. GAO felt that if agencies had done this, the information collected for the 2013 inventory might have been more useful to the stakeholders.

What GAO doesn’t address in its report is when OMB and agencies should act on these recommendations. A good guess might be to re-start the inventory data collection efforts after the DATA Act’s standards are defined and solidified, which is targeted for May 2015.

IBM Center for The Business of Government

Graphic credit:  Courtesy of  Victor Habbick via FreeDigitalPhoto

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Always appreciate your posts, John. What do you think is the number one thing that could make these inventories useful?

John Kamensky

Hi Andrew – I think that if this inventory effort is to work effectively, several things need to happen — not just one!

First, Congress should commit to providing some funding to support it. You can’t build a complex website without money, and you need to be able to staff the effort. Success can happen. Look at the Recovery Act’s website – which was funded to the tune of $18 million. It worked and had a core staff that made it so successful that it inspired the DATA Act However, neither the inventory law nor the DATA Act were appropriated monies for their implementation – in an environment where all funding is being cut (e.g., sequester) or frozen (e.g, CRs).

Second, Congress should probably hit the “pause” button on passing more laws to collect more data. It can pass laws faster than the executive branch can implement them. It should wait to see what the impact is of the first laws passed, then pass more requirements if needed.

Third, the inventory effort has to be “owned” across the different administrative stovepipes within each agency. Too often, requirements are developed and the implementing program managers don’t engage others in their agencies. This will become especially important when trying to coordinate budget, finance, and program information to meet the inventory and the DATA Act requirements. Right now, the implementers of these two sets of requirements seem to be on separate paths.