Even the government’s main school marm gets a report card

GAO has a continuing list of recommendations for the Office of Management and Budget which it recently reiterated.

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No one is exempt from this oversight, even the overseers within the Executive Branch. GAO has a continuing list of recommendations for the Office of Management and Budget as a matter of fact, which it recently reiterated. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin got details from the GAO’s Director of Strategic Issues Michelle Sager.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Michelle, good to have you back.

Michelle Sager: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

Tom Temin: And it looks like your list of 44 kind of ongoing recommendations for OMB includes a lot about data, data transparency, data availability on government operations.

Michelle Sager: That’s correct. It is pretty wide ranging. And that reflects the reality of OMB’s role across the government, and providing guidance on a whole host of topics. So there are eight major categories of recommendations in the letter. And then the biggest of those categories relates to improving government performance, and closely following that are increasing availability and transparency of government data and acquisition management, reducing cost.

Tom Temin: Right. So that’s about the three biggest things that there can possibly be improving government performance. And of course, OMB is the clearinghouse for so much activity within the Executive Branch. Under improving government performance, what couple of things can OMB do most to improve its own ability to improve the government performance?

Michelle Sager: So this category covers a number of different topics. It includes 16 priority recommendations, and the basic idea that is a common thread through all of them is that they would help OMB better meet the information needs of decision makers. And so that includes things such as a topic GAO has followed over many years. And that has great congressional interest, which is fully and effectively implementing a federal program inventory. And part of that includes broadening the scope of the program inventory that OMB would typically consider to also include tax expenditures, so that we can look not just at spending, but also look at tax expenditures. And then it also includes topics that cover strengthening, monitoring and evaluation practices for foreign assistance, as well as developing goals that would support child well-being and employment for people with disabilities.

Tom Temin: And of course, Congress seems to be creating programs faster than possibly anyone can keep track of them. So it’s kind of an ever-expanding issue, isn’t it.

Michelle Sager: It never really goes away, so it’s one of those topics that is of ongoing importance. OMB has made some strides on the federal program inventory, and they are taking action. So that is good to see. And one of the priority recommendations that we closed this year, related to the federal program inventory. And so we are planning to follow the momentum of that effort, as well as provide guidance based on our prior work to make sure that as that happens, it is being done in a way that can not only focus on the program inventory, but also focus on some of those government data issues that you mentioned. So that over time, the federal program inventory effort is also linked to another long-standing area that has evolved over many years, which is USASpending.gov, which gets at data transparency, knowing where the money is going. And then also looking in a more holistic way and how the government is trying to achieve its goals through the tax expenditures as well as direct spending.

Tom Temin: Before we get to USASpending.gov, I wanted to ask the inventory of government programs, that would be useful in maybe getting at another long standing GAO issue, which is duplicative and overlapping programs.

Michelle Sager: Absolutely. And this is a topic that comes up every time our comptroller general testifies at hearings on duplication, overlap and fragmentation. The basic idea being that if you had the program inventory, then you could look at any number of topics, people experiencing homelessness, child well being, various education initiatives, and the list goes on and on. And you could get a picture across the entire federal government of where we’re spending money, and where we need to further coordinate and collaborate to make sure that we’re doing that in a very intentional way. And also being as efficient as possible as that spending occurs.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michelle Sager, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, and getting to USASpending.gov, that seems like an example of a well-intentioned effort almost like Data.gov earlier on, where they get a really good start. But then it kind of grows stale as other initiatives come up with these different dashboards for pandemic spending. And there’s so many dashboards out there that talk about duplicative efforts. Maybe they should all be under USASpending.gov and therefore that would advance that program.

Michelle Sager: So USASpending.gov has really evolved in ways that we couldn’t necessarily have anticipated when the digital Accountability and Transparency Act was enacted back in 2014. There has been a lot of evolution of that system. And there are literally scores of federal agencies that provide input to that system. And the recommendations here really focus on OMB’ role at the center of government, not only providing guidance, but also as agencies are submitting their information, making sure, A) that that is happening and B) that it is happening in alignment with the guidance that OMB has already issued. So these recommendations really focus on that center-of-government role that OMB plays. And in this case, OMB plays that role in collaboration with the Department of Treasury. Treasury provides the technical guidance, and then OMB provides the policy guidance.

Tom Temin: And another area where OMB collaborates is Federal Real Property and asset management, one of the eight areas overarching in your recommendations, in that case, it would be the General Services Administration. And that seems to be particularly urgent now, because of all the leases that are coming up. And because of the telework situation, which seems to mitigate in favor of some real opportunities to condense all that space.

Michelle Sager: Definitely so the nature of this has always been important. And then it has taken on a different kind of tone in the current environment, as federal agencies are thinking about the future of work. So it’s always important to know where the federal government’s assets are and how we’re managing them, so that we’re doing it efficiently and in a cost-effective way. And again, this recommendation is similar to many in that it gets at OMB’s role across the entire federal government. And this particular recommendation gets at updating guidance to other federal agencies so that they can, as they’re conducting their work, reflect leading asset management practices, as well as developing a kind of clearinghouse of information on those practices and successful agency experiences and then sharing them with each other.

Tom Temin: And in general, how does OMB respond to the recommendations and the reiteration of them from GAO, because even though there’s a lot of, like all agencies, there’s this political level of turnover that never seems to cease but people forget that OMB has a pretty large and able standing career staff also.

Michelle Sager: They do, definitely. And one of the things that we track in the priority recommendation letters is looking at something you could think about as kind of an implementation rate. So in November 2021, we reported that governmentwide, 76% of GAO’s recommendations made four years ago were implemented. And OMB’s recommendation implementation rate for that time period was 77%. So they’re doing pretty well in that sense. And another topic that we highlight in the letter gets at our High Risk List. And one of the things that we have added some new life to over the last two years is something we call tripartite meetings. So it’s OMB, the respective federal agencies and then GAO getting together and talking through some of the prickliest, most difficult to manage and take action on issues for the federal government, and figuring out what actions need to happen in order for progress to occur.

Tom Temin: All right, so they’re kind of better off than the shoemakers children in reverse, I guess, because they do have a good record of trying to get after those recommendations, since they are – should be the model for the rest of the government, I think in some sense.

Michelle Sager: They are definitely engaging with us, and we look forward to working with them. The letter itself includes additional details about what OMB’s response is to each individual recommendation, as well as any actions that they have planned. So they have a lot of topics that they are covering just as an entity with that governmentwide role, but they are definitely engaged. And you can see throughout the letter that they are taking progress in a number of areas.

Tom Temin: Michelle Sager is director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. As always, thanks so much.

Michelle Sager: Thank you.

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