WASHINGTON, D.C. (November 16, 2020) – The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) work generated $77.6 billion in financial benefits for Congress and the American people in fiscal year 2020—a return of about $114 on every dollar invested in GAO. The congressional watchdog also produced more than 1,300 other benefits that influenced legislation and strengthened a wide range of government programs. These accomplishments are documented in GAO’s performance and accountability report for fiscal year 2020 being issued today, which discusses the agency’s efforts during the past year to help the federal government save money and improve operations.
“The latest performance and accountability report makes clear GAO’s value in helping increase government efficiency and effectiveness,” said Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States and the head of the GAO. “I appreciate lawmakers’ continued confidence in GAO. I also want to thank every GAO employee for their many contributions during what was an especially challenging year due to the pandemic. Their outstanding efforts were vital to our success.”
During the past year, GAO provided Congress with timely information on a range of pressing issues, including the status of the federal response to the public health and economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the evolving impact of science and technology, and cyber-based threats to the nation’s information systems and critical infrastructure. Examples of GAO’s impact, as reflected in program improvements and cost savings, include:
Preventing IRS from Issuing Fraudulent Tax Refunds. GAO found in 2014 that IRS could help better detect tax refund fraud due to identity theft by matching wage information that employers report on the W-2 tax form to individuals’ tax returns before issuing refunds. However, employers’ wage data were not available until months after IRS issued most refunds. GAO recommended that IRS assess the costs and benefits of accelerating W-2 deadlines and report this information to Congress, which IRS did in 2015. In response, Congress advanced the deadline for employers to file W-2s, a change that helped IRS avoid more than $900 million in fraudulent payments. (See GAO-14-633.)
Ensuring that Medicaid Demonstrations are Budget-Neutral. States may test new approaches for delivering Medicaid services, with approval from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but these projects must be budget-neutral. In reports dating back the 1990s, GAO found that HHS had allowed states to use questionable methods resulting in inflated demonstration spending limits and increasing the federal government’s fiscal liability. HHS issued a new policy in 2017 to better ensure that these demonstration projects are budget-neutral. HHS estimates that this change reduced the government’s fiscal liability in 10 states by $29.4 billion in 2019.
Improving Oversight of DOE Construction Project. Construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, initially estimated to cost about $4.8 billion, was a key part of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) approach to disposing of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. In response to GAO’s recommendation, DOE undertook more oversight reviews and found that the facility would cost billions more. The Department identified a less costly alternative and terminated the project in 2018, saving about $13 billion.
Improving FAA Oversight of Drone Safety. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees unmanned aircraft systems, or “drones,” in order to help protect lives and property. In 2019, GAO reported on weaknesses in how FAA communicated with law enforcement partners on their expected role in drone safety. FAA also had not determined what data it needed to assess its efforts. In response to GAO’s recommendations, FAA took steps that should improve communication with law enforcement partners and clarify the information law enforcement needs to share with FAA on unsafe drone operations. (See GAO-19-427 and GAO-19-52.)
Strengthening Plans for Moon Landing. Although NASA is pursuing an aggressive timeline to return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2024, four years earlier than planned, it lacked a comprehensive rationale for its lunar plans and information on how much the mission would cost. GAO urged NASA to develop a cohesive plan outlining its efforts for a moon landing, and document a cost estimate for the mission. NASA agreed with those recommendations, which, if implemented, would help the space agency establish a solid business case for its lunar plans and better inform Congress about the total cost. (See GAO-20-68.)
Better Tracking Separations and Medical Care at the Southwest Border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended more than 850,000 noncitizens along the southwest border in fiscal year 2019. Although CBP is required to track family separations, GAO found that that was not always done accurately. In February 2020, GAO made nine recommendations to help improve tracking of family units and documentation on family separations. CBP has also sought to improve medical care for those in its custody. In July 2020, we made 10 recommendations to improve CBP’s oversight of funds, medical care, and the reporting of deaths. In response, CBP plans to improve its guidance for processing family separations and develop oversight mechanisms for medical care. (See GAO-20-536 and GAO-20-245.)
Reporting Concerns about VHA Providers. GAO reported in 2017 that due to inadequate oversight at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), medical providers with serious quality and safety concerns were not being reported to the National Provider Data Bank or state licensing boards. VHA indicated in 2019 that had it implemented a new tool to ensure that provider concerns are appropriately reported in a timely manner. The agency also provided evidence that it reported concerns about specific providers that GAO flagged. As a result, VHA is better able to share information with the public about medical providers about whom it has serious concerns. (GAO-18-63)
In addition to these benefits, there were also several accomplishments of note for our Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team, which expanded its capabilities in the past year as GAO grew the team’s expertise and expanded our portfolio of work. We bolstered our expertise through targeted hiring in areas including aerospace, medical, and mechanical engineering; financial crime; and applied industrial mathematics. We also expanded our use of Science and Tech Spotlights, publishing 15 of these that distill complex issues into two-page summaries for quick review. Topics included COVID-19 testing and also 5G wireless. In addition, we issued in-depth Technology Assessments that covered topics such as the use of artificial intelligence to deliver health care services, plus data quality considerations for modeling and analysis of COVID-19. Finally, this past year we also established an Innovation Lab within GAO to prototype advanced analytics and emerging technologies.
GAO made 1,459 new recommendations in fiscal year 2020. In addition, senior GAO officials testified 59 times before 43 different Congressional Committees on activities across the federal government. For more information, contact Chuck Young in the Office of Public Affairs at (202) 512-4800.
The Government Accountability Office, known as the investigative arm of Congress, is an independent, nonpartisan agency that exists to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities. GAO also works to improve the performance of the federal government and ensure its accountability to the American people. The agency examines the use of public funds; evaluates federal programs and policies; and provides analyses, recommendations, and other assistance to help Congress make informed oversight, policy, and funding decisions. GAO provides Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonideological, fair, and balanced. GAO’s commitment to good government is reflected in its core values of accountability, integrity, and reliability.