GAO may have saved the government even more money

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By the reckoning of the Government Accountability Office, over the last two decades it has saved the government more than $1 trillion and recommended 25,000 improvements. Our guest has analyzed 21 years of GAO annual reports and finds the congressional agency may be a little too modest. With more, the director of cyber and national security at the Lincoln Network, Dan Lips, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dan, good to have you back.

Dan Lips: Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: What prompted you to look at 21 years of GAO reports? That takes some fortitude to get through.

Dan Lips: GAO provides a important role for Congress. I’m a former congressional staffer and had the privilege of working with GAO’s auditors and saw how they inform Congress’s work in terms of shaping legislation, and also how they do oversight over federal agencies often very far removed from the spotlight. So looking back to their annual reports, which started in 1999, we thought it was an interesting way to really evaluate their return on investment for taxpayers.

Tom Temin: And what you found, what it looks like in reading the report is that they are a little bit too quick to round off. And some of the really good material is lost in the rounding errors.

Dan Lips: When we’re talking really big figures like that saving $1.1 trillion over 21 years, it’s really hard to get a sense of where the biggest value is for Congress. And so one of the things that we did was we looked at each annual report and categorized where the savings were coming from. And we learned a few interesting things. One thing was that the largest areas of savings were on oversight of the Department of Defense, and of the Department of Health and Human Services. Those accounted for about a third of all the savings over 21 years.

Tom Temin: That’s pretty much where all of the improper payments occur. A lot of it through Medicare, Medicaid, you could probably throw in Social Security as a smaller amount. But then DoD cost overruns and I guess their lack of business systems acumen, which they’ve only been working on for 25 years, is part of the issue.

Dan Lips: Absolutely. In terms of God, it was a lot of oversight over contracting programs. And GAo provided recommendations that led the Pentagon to cancel programs that were running over budget and were not providing value. So for Congress thinking about how to use GAO and how to leverage this important tool of a watchdog agency, we think we can draw some lessons from how GAO has provided the most value over the past two decades.

Tom Temin: One of your findings is, and I’ll just read it, Congress and the Comptroller General should improve the transparency of GAO’s annual performance and accountability reports by requiring detailed descriptions of all the financial benefits and ROI estimates. Tell us more about that one.

Dan Lips: Looking at GAO’s reports over the past 21 years, one thing we learned was that they only report about half of their findings. Each year, they reported a little more than 600 billion of the 1.1 trillion that’s been reported since 1999. I think it would be helpful for Congress and the American people to see all of the examples of savings that GAO counts in those estimates to really understand how the watchdog is providing value.

Tom Temin: Maybe the implication there is that even though the savings on some of the recommendations might be smaller than on others, it could still represent a real program delivery improvement, which could help the agency’s credibility and quality.

Dan Lips: Absolutely. And the context here is that we’re in an era of federal budget deficits that are in the trillions, and GAO has a budget of a little more than 600 million. And to help Congress, the American people understand just how much value GAO provides, it’ll be helpful to have more of those details made public.

Tom Temin: And, Dan, I wanted to also ask you about your recommendation that Congress increase appropriations for GAO. That is something I think GAO is reluctant to bring up themselves. But what would that money do? How could that have some leverage?

Dan Lips: In his annual report to Congress, the Comptroller General proposed a $76 million increase. And based on the appropriations bills that are moving forward in Congress right now, they’re not going to provide anything close to that. But based on the general math of how much GAO has been saving since 2012, which is more than $100 per dollar invested in GAO, that extra 70 million could probably deliver something in the ballpark of $7 billion in savings. That’s not precise, it’s not clear that every extra dollar will yield all that savings. But from what we looked at dollar spent wisely on GAO can have a huge impact for Congress and vastly deliver savings that are much bigger than GAO’s own budget.

Tom Temin: Savings are in some ways small compared to the total federal outlays which are much more than the $1.3 trillion discretionary budget, but in the context of that 1.3 trillion, they do add up. Earlie, you mentioned defense and health and human services as the biggest areas that they do report savings in. But some of them are pretty substantial, even though they’re not quite that scale. Housing and Urban Development struck me, 39 billion, that’s a little tiny HUD relative to HHS and defense.

Dan Lips: Their work goes across many agencies and looking at their savings that’s reported from NASA, from the Postal Service, the Department of Education, looking at changes to the student loan program budgeting, we provide all these details in the report, which you can access at joinlincoln.org or lincolnpolicy. org, where we have the full report. One of the things we’re hoping to get greater clarity on and GAO has just provided to us is all of the details, we requested all of the examples of savings that, we’ll be having a new report coming out soon presenting all of that, and there’s a lot of small savings that aren’t reported, but are very important.

Tom Temin: I imagine that would be of interest to the incoming Biden administration team, they should probably meet with GAO and not simply look at the reports.

Dan Lips: Absolutely. And one of the things that’s encouraging about Congress’s relationship with GAO is that it’s very non partisan. From my personal experience, I know that lawmakers and staffers on both sides of the aisle truly value GAO’s work. The more that we can understand how its work is delivering savings and other benefits, I think that will help grow that trust from Congress.

Tom Temin: And when you say the transparency of the reports could be greater, how do you mean? Because you were able to see what is not often widely disseminated, but it’s in the reports. How could they be more transparent? Or do they need to promulgate more?

Dan Lips: The main thing that I recommend is that they should list every item of savings. Currently, they provide examples of savings. So about half of what they report each year is presented examples. The other half of the funding that they allude to, but don’t actually detail, I think we should see all of that information.

Tom Temin: And what about the GAO recommendation implementation rate? Because, as you mentioned, 25,000 suggestions, sometimes they say them over and over again, and the agencies never get any better at things.

Dan Lips: Yeah, that’s an area I think where both Congress and the executive branch could work to implement GAO’s recommendations at a faster rate. They describe how generally federal agencies implement about three out of four recommendations within four years. But it takes a few years for those recommendations to be implemented. A question that I have for Congress and GAO is what’s the cost of not having these recommendations implemented in a timely fashion? If we could speed up the implementation of these cost savings measures, you’d probably deliver a lot of improvements for the government and savings for the taxpayer.

Tom Temin: And a big question for GAO, for the government, and I know your group has had some discussions and some research in this whole area of the revival potentially of the Office of Technology assessment, and that’s occurred as GAO itself was acquiring more science and technology, oversight and expertise. What’s your assessment of where we head on that point?

Dan Lips: That’s a great point, and something that I’m really excited about is that over the past couple years, GAO has been rebuilding and growing out the science technology assessment and analytics team, or the STAA, which is just going to provide a few things to Congress. One is technical expertise and advice that often doesn’t exist in-house on Capitol Hill. But another exciting aspect of their work is analytics team. And using data analytics to track things like improper payments could really achieve a lot of new savings for the taxpayer. GAO estimates that the federal government spends something like $175 billion each year on improper payments, and just cutting that in half could have incredible savings.

Tom Temin: And that technology knowledge in Congress could probably help, especially as they move to electronic voting. I could just see it now. Madam Speaker, which button do I push here?

Dan Lips: Absolutely. And some of the really complicated policy issues and oversight issues facing Congress from cybersecurity to AI to new technologies, in all these areas, congressional staff and members of Congress would benefit from being able to tap into GAO’s expertise.

Tom Temin: Maybe they even understand Facebook. Dan Lips is director of cyber and national security at the Lincoln Network. Thanks so much.

Dan Lips: Thank you for having me.

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