Government Efficiency and Effectiveness:

Inconsistent Definitions and Information Limit the Usefulness of Federal Program Inventories

GAO-15-83: Published: Oct 31, 2014. Publicly Released: Oct 31, 2014.

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What GAO Found

To date, the approach used by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and agencies has not led to the inventory of all federal programs, along with related budget and performance information, envisioned in the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA). In developing the inventory, OMB allowed for significant discretion in several areas—leading to a variety of approaches for defining programs and inconsistencies in the type of information reported. The inconsistent definitions, along with agencies not following an expected consultation process, led to challenges in identifying similar programs in different agencies. As a result of these limitations, the inventory is not a useful tool for decision making. OMB is considering options for enhancing the inventory.

GPRAMA requires OMB to publish a list of all federal programs on a central governmentwide website. It also requires OMB to issue guidance, and agencies to identify and provide to OMB for publication information about each program— including how they defined their programs in line with OMB's guidance. OMB is taking an iterative approach to implement these requirements. Based on experiences from a pilot involving 11 agencies in 2012, OMB issued guidance allowing agencies flexibility to define their programs using different approaches, but within a broad definition of what constitutes a program—a set of related activities directed toward a common purpose or goal. According to OMB staff, this was based on a lesson learned from the pilot effort: a one-size-fits-all approach does not work well; agencies and their stakeholders use the term “program” in different ways because agencies achieve their missions through different programmatic approaches. In May 2013, OMB published the inventories developed by 24 agencies, which used various approaches to define and identify 1,524 programs (see table below).

 

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Because agencies used different approaches, similar programs across agencies may not be identifiable. To illustrate the shortcomings of the inventory, GAO attempted to locate in relevant agencies' inventories the various science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and nuclear nonproliferation programs identified in GAO's past work. GAO was unable to identify in the inventories a large majority of the programs previously identified in its work: 9 of the 179 programs matched exactly and 51 others were identified based on program descriptions.

The lack of comparability may also be the result of agencies not working with each other when developing their inventories. One of OMB's stated purposes for the inventories is to facilitate coordination among programs that contribute to similar outcomes. However, agencies did not work together to consistently define their programs. Increased coordination could help agencies identify where they have programs that contribute to similar goals and thus, opportunities to collaborate in achieving desired outcomes.

The 24 inventories developed by agencies in 2013 did not provide the programs and related budget and performance information required by GPRAMA. This limits the usefulness of the inventories to various decision makers, including Congress and stakeholders. To be useful, the inventories must meet various users' needs for accuracy, completeness, consistency, reliability, and validity, among other factors. Specific steps OMB and agencies could take to ensure the inventories are more useful to decision makers include:

Presenting program-level budget information. Although GPRAMA requires agencies to identify program-level funding, OMB did not direct agencies to include this information in their 2013 inventories—it was to be part of a planned May 2014 update. However, OMB subsequently put the 2014 update on hold to determine how to merge these requirements with implementation of the federal spending information to be reported under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). Reporting for both laws is web-based, which could more easily enable linkages between the two sites or incorporating information from each other. The Senate version of a bill, the Taxpayers Right-to-Know Act of 2014, which is currently under consideration, would require this linkage in lieu of incorporating budget information on the program inventory site.

Providing complete performance information . GPRAMA and OMB's guidance require agencies to describe each program's contribution to the agency's goals. However, there are instances where agencies omitted that information. For example, agencies did not consistently show how some or all of their programs supported strategic goals (in 7 of 24 inventories) or strategic objectives (in 13 of 24 inventories). Ensuring agencies illustrate this alignment would better explain how programs support the results agencies are achieving.

Consulting with stakeholders . None of the agencies sought input on their inventories from external stakeholders, such as Congress, state and local governments, and third-party service providers, although OMB's 2012 guidance instructed agencies to do so. In several instances, agency officials stated that they thought OMB was soliciting feedback on all inventories. By consulting with stakeholders to understand their needs, agencies would better ensure that the information provided in the inventories is useful for stakeholder decision making.

Other features of OMB's approach further limit the program inventories' ability to present a coherent picture of all federal programs, as required by GPRAMA. First, to date, OMB has only included 24 agencies in this effort. Second, while not specified by GPRAMA, tax expenditures were not included in the 2013 inventory. Tax expenditures, which represent a reduction in a taxpayer's tax liability through credits, deductions, or other means, resulted in $1.1 trillion in forgone revenue in fiscal year 2013, nearly the same amount as discretionary spending that year. By including tax expenditures, OMB could help ensure that agencies are properly identifying their contributions to the achievement of agency goals, as OMB's guidance directs them to do. Finally, OMB's guidance and staff have stated that eventually the inventory will move to a more dynamic, web-based presentation. This could make it easier to tag and sort related or similar programs, for instance, by type of program or contribution to the same or similar goals. Covering additional agencies and tax expenditures in the federal program inventory, along with web-based sorting capabilities, would help decision makers determine the scope of the federal government's involvement in a particular area, and therefore where action is needed to better address fragmentation, overlap, or duplication.

Why GAO Did This Study

GAO's reports over the past 4 years have found more than 90 areas where opportunities exist for the executive branch or Congress to better manage, reduce, or eliminate fragmentation, overlap, and duplication. GPRAMA calls for the creation of a list (inventory) of all federal programs, along with related budget and performance information, which could make it easier to determine the scope of the federal government's involvement in particular areas and, therefore, where action is needed to address crosscutting issues, including instances of fragmentation, overlap, or duplication.

GPRAMA requires GAO to periodically review its implementation. This report is part of GAO's response to that mandate and examines (1) how OMB and agencies defined programs, (2) the extent to which inventories provide useful information for decision makers, and (3) the extent to which inventories provide a coherent picture of the scope of federal involvement in particular areas. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed the 24 inventories using GPRAMA requirements, OMB guidance, and related leading practices from GAO's past work, and interviewed OMB staff and agency officials. For the first objective, GAO also selected two areas of fragmentation, overlap, and duplication identified in past GAO work—STEM education and nuclear nonproliferation—and compared the lists of programs developed in its past work to those contained in agency inventories. The two areas were selected based on various factors, including the number of agencies involved and whether those agencies published an inventory.

What GAO Recommends

GAO makes several recommendations to OMB. To present a more coherent picture of all federal programs, GAO recommends OMB revise its guidance to direct agencies to collaborate when defining and identifying programs that contribute to a common outcome, define plans for expanding implementation beyond the current 24 agencies, and include tax expenditures in the federal program inventory. In addition, to improve the usefulness of the information in inventories GAO recommends OMB ensure agencies consistently identify the various goals each program supports, and consult with stakeholders when developing or updating their inventories.

OMB staff generally agreed with these recommendations, although they neither agreed nor disagreed with three of GAO's recommendations related to including tax expenditures and additional performance information. OMB staff stated that until they had firmer plans on how program inventory and DATA Act implementation would be merged, they could not determine if implementing those recommendations would be feasible. 

For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202) 512-6806 or mihmj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2016, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff stated that they have not taken any actions in response to our recommendations related to the federal program inventory, as they continue to determine how best to implement inventory requirements in coordination with those of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). In our July 2015 testimony on DATA Act implementation, we recommended that OMB accelerate efforts to determine how best to merge DATA Act purposes and requirements with the GPRAMA requirement to produce a federal program inventory (see GAO-15-752T). However, at the same hearing, the Acting Deputy Director for Management and Controller at OMB stated that, because the staff that would be involved in working on the program inventories were heavily involved in DATA Act implementation, he would not expect an update of the program inventories to happen before May 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure the effective implementation of federal program inventory requirements and to make the inventories more useful, the Director of OMB should, to better present a more coherent picture of all federal programs, revise relevant guidance to direct agencies to collaborate with each other in defining and identifying programs that contribute to common outcomes.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2016, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff stated that they have not taken any actions in response to our recommendations related to the federal program inventory, as they continue to determine how best to implement inventory requirements in coordination with those of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). In our July 2015 testimony on DATA Act implementation, we recommended that OMB accelerate efforts to determine how best to merge DATA Act purposes and requirements with the GPRAMA requirement to produce a federal program inventory (see GAO-15-752T). However, at the same hearing, the Acting Deputy Director for Management and Controller at OMB stated that, because the staff that would be involved in working on the program inventories were heavily involved in DATA Act implementation, he would not expect an update of the program inventories to happen before May 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure the effective implementation of federal program inventory requirements and to make the inventories more useful, the Director of OMB should, to better present a more coherent picture of all federal programs, revise relevant guidance to provide a time frame for what constitutes "persistent over time" that agencies can use as a decision rule for whether to include short-term efforts as programs.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2016, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff stated that they have not taken any actions in response to our recommendations related to the federal program inventory, as they continue to determine how best to implement inventory requirements in coordination with those of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). In our July 2015 testimony on DATA Act implementation, we recommended that OMB accelerate efforts to determine how best to merge DATA Act purposes and requirements with the GPRAMA requirement to produce a federal program inventory (see GAO-15-752T). However, at the same hearing, the Acting Deputy Director for Management and Controller at OMB stated that, because the staff that would be involved in working on the program inventories were heavily involved in DATA Act implementation, he would not expect an update of the program inventories to happen before May 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure the effective implementation of federal program inventory requirements and to make the inventories more useful, the Director of OMB should, to better present a more coherent picture of all federal programs, define plans for when additional agencies will be required to develop program inventories.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: As of June 2016, OMB had not taken action to include tax expenditures in the federal program inventory, as GAO recommended in October 2014. The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) requires OMB to publish a list of all federal programs on a central, government-wide website. The federal program inventory is the primary tool for agencies to identify programs that contribute to their goals, according to OMB's guidance. By including tax expenditures in the inventory, OMB could help ensure that agencies are properly identifying the contributions of tax expenditures to the achievement of their goals. Although OMB published an initial inventory covering the programs of 24 federal agencies in May 2013, OMB decided to postpone further development of the inventory in order to coordinate with the implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). In July 2015, GAO recommended that OMB accelerate efforts to merge DATA Act purposes with the production of a federal program inventory.

    Recommendation: To ensure the effective implementation of federal program inventory requirements and to make the inventories more useful, the Director of OMB should, to better present a more coherent picture of all federal programs, include tax expenditures in the federal program inventory effort by designating tax expenditure as a program type in relevant guidance.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: As of June 2016, OMB had not taken action to develop a tax expenditure inventory describing the purpose of each tax expenditure with related performance and budget information, as GAO recommended in October 2014. The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) requires OMB to publish a list of all federal programs on a central, government-wide website. The federal program inventory is the primary tool for agencies to identify programs that contribute to their goals, according to OMB's guidance. By including tax expenditures in the inventory and centralizing information about their performance, OMB could help ensure that agencies are properly identifying the contributions of tax expenditures to the achievement of their goals. Although OMB published an initial inventory covering the programs of 24 federal agencies in May 2013, OMB decided to postpone further development of the inventory in order to coordinate with the implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). In July 2015, GAO recommended that OMB accelerate efforts to merge DATA Act purposes with the production of a federal program inventory.

    Recommendation: To ensure the effective implementation of federal program inventory requirements and to make the inventories more useful, the Director of OMB should, to better present a more coherent picture of all federal programs, include tax expenditures in the federal program inventory effort by developing, in coordination with the Secretary of the Treasury, a tax expenditure inventory that identifies each tax expenditure and provides a description of how the tax expenditure is defined, its purpose, and related performance and budget information.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2016, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff stated that they have not taken any actions in response to our recommendations related to the federal program inventory, as they continue to determine how best to implement inventory requirements in coordination with those of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). In our July 2015 testimony on DATA Act implementation, we recommended that OMB accelerate efforts to determine how best to merge DATA Act purposes and requirements with the GPRAMA requirement to produce a federal program inventory (see GAO-15-752T). However, at the same hearing, the Acting Deputy Director for Management and Controller at OMB stated that, because the staff that would be involved in working on the program inventories were heavily involved in DATA Act implementation, he would not expect an update of the program inventories to happen before May 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure the effective implementation of federal program inventory requirements and to make the inventories more useful, the Director of OMB should, to help ensure that the information agencies provide in their inventories is useful to federal decision makers and key stakeholders, and to provide greater transparency and ensure consistency in federal program funding and performance information, revise relevant guidance to direct agencies to consult with relevant congressional committees and stakeholders on their program definition approach and identified programs when developing or updating their inventories.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2016, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff stated that they have not taken any actions in response to our recommendations related to the federal program inventory, as they continue to determine how best to implement inventory requirements in coordination with those of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). In our July 2015 testimony on DATA Act implementation, we recommended that OMB accelerate efforts to determine how best to merge DATA Act purposes and requirements with the GPRAMA requirement to produce a federal program inventory (see GAO-15-752T). However, at the same hearing, the Acting Deputy Director for Management and Controller at OMB stated that, because the staff that would be involved in working on the program inventories were heavily involved in DATA Act implementation, he would not expect an update of the program inventories to happen before May 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure the effective implementation of federal program inventory requirements and to make the inventories more useful, the Director of OMB should, to help ensure that the information agencies provide in their inventories is useful to federal decision makers and key stakeholders, and to provide greater transparency and ensure consistency in federal program funding and performance information, revise relevant guidance to direct agencies to identify in their inventories the performance goal(s) to which each program contributes.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2016, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff stated that they have not taken any actions in response to our recommendations related to the federal program inventory, as they continue to determine how best to implement inventory requirements in coordination with those of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act). In our July 2015 testimony on DATA Act implementation, we recommended that OMB accelerate efforts to determine how best to merge DATA Act purposes and requirements with the GPRAMA requirement to produce a federal program inventory (see GAO-15-752T). However, at the same hearing, the Acting Deputy Director for Management and Controller at OMB stated that, because the staff that would be involved in working on the program inventories were heavily involved in DATA Act implementation, he would not expect an update of the program inventories to happen before May 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure the effective implementation of federal program inventory requirements and to make the inventories more useful, the Director of OMB should, to help ensure that the information agencies provide in their inventories is useful to federal decision makers and key stakeholders, and to provide greater transparency and ensure consistency in federal program funding and performance information, ensure, during OMB reviews of inventories, that agencies consistently identify, as applicable, the strategic goals, strategic objectives, agency priority goals, and cross-agency priority goals each program supports.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

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