How are agencies responding to smaller budgets?
Federal discretionary spending, which funds activities like law enforcement training and worker protection programs, declined by about 12% between fiscal years 2010 and 2015.
We looked at the efforts of three federal agencies to manage their declining resources by:
1) Leading from the top e.g., reorganizing staff to better deal with workloads,
2) Using data analytics to guide decisions e.g., making data-driven process improvements, and
3) Reducing costs e.g., consolidating real property.
We recommended three ways to enhance their efforts and developed a framework that other agencies can use.
Overview of Framework for Examining Agencies’ Efforts to Manage Declining Resources
The framework identifies ways to lead from the top, use data analytics, and reduce costs.
What GAO Found
The three selected agencies GAO reviewed for this report—the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—each took a number of different approaches to manage declining resources that aligned with the three key themes outlined in GAO's framework. For example:
- Top Management Should Lead Efforts to Manage Declining Resources. ETA's Office of Foreign Labor Certification top management led efforts to ensure the agency maintains capacity to achieve its mission by taking steps to restructure its workforce to better use existing staff to address changes in workload. This includes cross-training its workforce to achieve greater interoperability of employees among its three processing centers.
- Data Analytics Should Guide Decision Making. EPA used Lean Six Sigma, a data-driven process-improvement methodology, to evaluate agency processes and identify opportunities to make them more efficient. For example, EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs reported that it reduced the time it takes to post pesticide product labels, which provide critical information about proper use and handling of pesticides.
- Agencies Should Develop Cost-Cutting and Cost-Avoidance Strategies. FLETC reported that in FY 2013 and 2014 the agency reviewed its service contracts to identity potential cost avoidance opportunities. As a result, FLETC reported avoiding roughly $8 million out of $81 million in service contracts by reducing or eliminating nonessential services, such as reducing hours for the information technology (IT) service desk support and consolidating security guard services.
However, opportunities exist for top management at selected agencies to take additional actions to ensure they maintain capacity to achieve their missions and avoid costs. For example, FLETC is working to develop an Online Campus initiative, which would provide distance-learning opportunities and represents a potential long-term cost avoidance strategy that could help the agency maintain capacity to provide necessary law enforcement training. However, FLETC has not yet finalized its plan for the Online Campus with steps and timeframes needed to ensure successful implementation. At ETA, the most recent recession tested the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program's capacity, but ETA has yet to systematically identify lessons learned to help ensure UI maintains capacity should workload increase again. Following through on these actions could help agencies better manage limited resources and maintain capacity to achieve their missions.
Some agency officials and stakeholders reported that actions taken by the selected agencies affected timeliness and service level for some programs. While some stakeholder organizations commended the agencies for their efforts to continue to achieve their missions with fewer resources, they also noted that some actions had negative effects on individuals, businesses, states, localities, and others. The effects they cited included delays in receiving unemployment benefits and disruptions to businesses resulting from delays in processing foreign labor applications and pesticide registration applications.
Why GAO Did This Study
Federal discretionary appropriations declined by roughly 12 percent between FY 2010 and 2015. To better understand issues agencies face in an environment of declining resources and how agencies could address them, GAO developed a framework in 2012 for examining agencies' efforts to manage declining resources.
GAO was asked to examine the specific actions agencies are taking to manage declining resources and the effects on services to the public. This report examined (1) to what extent selected agencies' actions to manage in an environment of declining resources aligned with GAO's framework and (2) the effects, if any, declines in discretionary spending after 2009 had on services to the public at selected agencies.
GAO applied its framework to three agencies selected based on budget data from FY 2010 through 2014. For the larger agencies (EPA and ETA), GAO selected two programs within each agency for review. GAO reviewed agency documents; and interviewed agency officials, program partners, and external stakeholders.
GAO makes three recommendations, including that FLETC finalize its plan for the Online Campus and ETA systematically identify lessons learned by the UI program that could help it respond to future economic downturns. FLETC concurred. ETA did not state whether it concurred or not but stated it believed the recommendation does not fully recognize its existing efforts. GAO continues to believe the recommendation is valid as discussed in the report.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Homeland Security||1. To help ensure that FLETC builds and maintains capacity to achieve its mission with existing levels of resources over the longer-term, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of FLETC to complete a revised strategic plan that encompasses the agency's long-term goals and objectives to address emerging challenges.|
|Department of Homeland Security||2. To help ensure that FLETC builds and maintains capacity to achieve its mission with existing levels of resources over the longer-term, as part of its strategic planning process, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of FLETC to finalize the plan, including the steps and time frames, needed to further implement its Online Campus initiative.|
|Department of Labor||3. To help ensure that ETA continues to have the capacity to achieve its mission and manage changes in demand for services resulting from changes in the broader economy, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Administrator of ETA to systematically gather and evaluate information on the challenges that states faced administering the unemployment insurance program during the recession that began in 2007--such as rapidly ramping up staffing at the start of the recession and ramping down as the economy recovered--and identify and build upon any lessons learned from this experience that could be broadly shared to help the program respond to any changes in workload during a future economic downturn.|