How much money do GAO audits actually save federal government, taxpayers?

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It used to be called the “General Accounting Office.” The GAO audits both financial and program performance of federal agencies. Now the nonpartisan Lincoln Network has analyzed data supplied by the GAO that’s not normally public, and it says a lot about how much money the GAO’s work actually saves. For details, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the Director of Cyber and National Security at the Lincoln Network, Dan Lips.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dan, good to have you back.

Dan Lips: Hi, Tom. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: What you did then is, first of all, you have been among those urging GAO to get Congress to get the GAO to maybe publish the estimate of what could be saved if all of its recommendations were followed by federal agencies, because the federal agencies don’t follow all of the recommendations. And what did that show?

Dan Lips: GAO provides a lot of value to Congress and the government. Every year, they provide an estimate publicly about how much their work contributes to financial savings and other government improvements. And over time, this work has been really valuable. GAO says that its work has resulted in more than $1 trillion in savings since 2002. And what we did was we asked GAO through their process, which is similar to FOIA, to provide us with all of those financial accomplishments, as they call them, to understand how GAO’s work impacts federal agencies, and how this savings is realized.

Tom Temin: And it turns out that maybe the picture of savings is better even than GAO sometimes portrays.

Dan Lips: it’s really exciting to see how this nonpartisan oversight provides value for the government and makes government operations work better. For example, over that nearly 20 year period, GAO recorded about 1,700 individual accomplishments. And 200 of those accomplishments saved more than $1 billion for taxpayers. So this really shows the value of GAO’S nonpartisan oversight. This also highlights how much more could be saved if agencies acted upon all of GAO’s open recommendations. As of this month, there are more than 4,700 open recommendations that are basically ways that GAO thinks the government could work better. If all agencies implemented those open recommendations, we could see substantial savings and other improvements.

Tom Temin: And GAO itself says that of the 16,079 financial accomplishments in that same period, 2002 to 2019, They claim 1.1 trillion in savings.

Dan Lips: Exactly. So it’s likely that if agencies acted upon all of their currently open recommendations, and also answered their future recommendations in a more timely manner, we’d see substantial savings in the tens if not hundreds of billions range.

Tom Temin: Yeah, you get a trillion here, a trillion there pretty soon, you’ve got your infrastructure paid for without doing anything else.

Dan Lips: Exactly. And when we consider the nation’s long term fiscal challenges, these numbers would be an important step forward, particularly where there’s bipartisan support to make the government work better and a little savings for taxpayers.

Tom Temin: And is it fair to say that of the recommendations it’s made, the financial accomplishments over that period, most of that accrued in the Defense Department?

Dan Lips: oversight of the Defense Department resulted in the most savings, about $420 billion out of that $1.1 trillion. So it’s likely that a lot of the current or future savings could be related to the Department of Defense.

Tom Temin: And these are listed in your report, as well, it’s 112 pages of recommendations year by year. And some of the numbers are quite amazing. I mean, they’re hundreds of millions of dollars per agency, sometimes billions per year that they produce – and I’m not sure everyone is aware of that

Dan Lips: Looking at this data really shows how GAO provides a great return on investment for taxpayers. Every year, they estimate that they save about $100 for every dollar that Congress spends. And that’s based on what they’ve already been able to do over these recent years. It’s exciting to think about what could be done if agencies answered their recommendations in a more timely manner.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dan Lips, he’s director of cyber and national security at the Lincoln Network. You also seem to imply in the piece, in the report, that maybe Gao itself could be a little bit more forthcoming in what it is actually able to accomplish. Maybe they’re being too modest.

Dan Lips: I think it would be great if GAO listed every one of their financial accomplishments each year, Congress and the American people should know how GAO’s work is resulting in value, they should be proud of that record. So I think more transparency about what they’re accomplishing will be valued.

Tom Temin: What about the idea of accounting here? Based on their old name of General Accounting Office, sometimes members of Congress still call it that, they call VA the Veterans Administration too, but are agencies able to somehow – government as a whole – account for money not spent and saved and somehow getting that back into the Treasury, because it seems ephemeral at times?

Dan Lips: Yeah, I think it would be really great to think about ways that agencies and GAO could be rewarded by saving taxpayer dollars. We’re headed towards the end of the fiscal year, and there’s a tradition within many federal agencies of spend it or lose it around this time of year. GAO’s work shows that there’s really lots of savings that could be achieved if agency leaders and even folks in the management levels were more diligent about saving taxpayer dollars. Everyone from Congress to federal agency leaders and through the federal workforce should be thinking creatively about how we can achieve more savings.

Tom Temin: And what’s your sense of how much Congress takes up GAO findings in the hearings that are conducted with agencies? Sometimes they really glom on to something and other things seem to go by and nobody pays any attention.

Dan Lips: Absolutely. I think generally, members of Congress have value jails work. I was a former congressional staffer, and from my experience GAO’s witnesses are always trusted and valued and their recommendations often inform legislation and they generally always informed congressional oversight. But sometimes, reform recommendations are overlooked and GAO’s warnings about big problems, from the debt to challenges like cybersecurity are issued year after year. And Congress doesn’t do enough to hold agencies accountable OR answer GAO.

Tom Temin: And in many ways, GAO has a culture which seems to enable it to sail along year after year, administration after administration, this party in the majority in Congress, that party in the majority in Congress. And sometimes if you ask GAO people privately, you might get a slight eyeroll over what some of the agencies do that’s astounding, but publicly and in the reports, they are so straightforward.

Dan Lips: GAO has developed a very trusted reputation for being nonpartisan and being independent, regardless of party in power in the executive branch. Across aisles, There’s great support for GAO and tremendous respect, which I believe is a good reason for focusing in future congressional reforms and oversight on GAO’S recommendations, because there’s a lot of trust there.

Tom Temin: And in compiling this list of, well, almost a couple of thousand financial recommendations over the 18-19 year period – anything stood out to you as wow?

Dan Lips: I think just the overall scope, and the fact that so many of their recommendations yield more than $1 billion in savings. And to put that into context, GAO itself as an agency just gets about $700 million. So many of its accomplishments results in much larger savings than even that. There’s so much that can be saved in government management in acquisitions. Across the board, there’s a lot that can be done here, which I think deserves attention.

Tom Temin: Dan Lips is director of cyber and national security at the Lincoln Network. As always, thanks so much for joining me.

Dan Lips: Thank you, Tom.

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