Here is a fact that may be jarring to you. The federal government does not have a list of all of its federal programs. If asked by Congress, most federal agencies could not even produce such a list. How do we know? Because Congress tried and federal agencies failed.
In 2010, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRA Modernization Act). The GPRA Modernization Act required the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to publish information about programs identified by agencies, including how those programs contribute to the mission and goals of the agency, and the amount the program cost.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the federal program inventories required by the GPRA Modernization Act in 2014 and found that “the 24 inventories developed by agencies in 2013 did not provide the programs and related budget and performance information required by GPRMA. This limits the usefulness of the inventories to various decision makers, including Congress and stakeholders.”
Since then, OMB has given up on producing the inventories – focusing on other initiatives such as implementation of the DATA Act (which is a big win for transparency) while waiting on Congress to produce a bill that would clarify some ambiguities in the 2010 GPRA Modernization bill.
That bill is the Taxpayers Right to Know Act. To describe the purpose of the bill, its lead sponsor Senator James Lankford (R-OK) often quotes Muhammad Ali’s famous line – “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” In other words, we cannot eliminate waste and inefficiencies if we do not know where they are. And we cannot know where they are until we begin managing and measuring all federal programs.
The Taxpayers Right to Know Act would provide the public with better and more useful information on the breadth, cost, and performance of programs administered by the federal government. Specifically, it would require federal agencies to show how much each program costs to run, how many employees are required to run it, who the intended beneficiaries are, and how effective it has been.
This straight forward common-sense bill was first introduced in December 2011 and has garnered overwhelming amounts of bipartisan support. It has passed the House of Representatives unanimously several times and has been passed out of its Senate Committee unanimously several times. Yet, it cannot make it into law because it keeps getting held by an anonymous member of the Senate Democrats that think that taxpayers don’t have the right to know – despite President Obama’s administration support for the bill.
The opposition to this overwhelmingly supported and bipartisan bill contributes to a more opaque and wasteful government. GAO Comptroller Gene Dodaro – the official that heads the agency that compiles the annual duplication report, stated that “one of the limitations we have had when doing that overlap and duplication work is the lack of cost information, budgetary information for many of these programs. Once you get the list, that is really the next thing that needs to be put in place.”
If we had a program inventory, then we could see which agencies are doing the same things and make sure they are communicating and assessing whether there is duplication, overlap, fragmentation, or inefficiencies within government programs.
Currently, the only lens into program performance, duplication, overlap, and fragmentation is through the work of GAO and IGs. While their work has helped inform Congress on how to save billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars, a program inventory with metrics is absolutely critical for Congress and the general public to evaluate programs. With this information, we will be able to identify what works and what doesn’t, replicate success and eliminate inefficiencies.
The bill would also force agencies and program managers to think about what kind of impacts they are having and how it aligns with their goal. Hamlet is one of the most influential of Shakespeare’s works and frequently adapted works in literary history (including one adaptation into Klingon). It’s unclear how the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) mission was furthered by using $30,000 in federal funds to support Senator Lankford’s entry into the Tournament of Government Waste, Doggie Hamlet – a bizarre adaptation that featured humans yelling or running toward very confused sheep and dogs while forgoing any actual lines from Hamlet.
Or using another Lankford entry, the Department of Transportation may have needed to think twice before spending $100 million per mile to extend a trolley line in San Diego by 10 miles – an equivalent expenditure could have built 100 to 250 miles of new four-lane highways.
“To be or not to be.”
Most participants in our Tournament of Government Waste are wishing that whoever funded these outlandish expenditures chose the latter. With better transparency and performance metrics applied to our federal programs – the Taxpayers Right to Know Act may make it more difficult to fill out future Tournament of Government Waste brackets. A welcome finale for all taxpayers.