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Federal Programs: Approaches to Help Create a Useful Inventory

GAO-23-106272 Published: Jan 24, 2023. Publicly Released: Jan 24, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The federal government spends trillions of dollars each year on various programs. However, it does not have an inventory of all federal programs—despite the fact that it has been required to have one available on a public website since 2011.

An annually updated inventory of federal programs would help the public better understand what the government does, what it spends, and what it achieves each year.

Developing such an inventory is a complex undertaking. Ensuring that federal leaders remain committed to the effort, and frequently engaging stakeholders, will be critical to its success.

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The Big Picture

The federal government spends trillions of dollars on federal programs that support the American people and address policy goals. However, it does not have an inventory of these programs, despite requirements since 2011 to develop and annually update one on a publicly available website.

What exactly is a federal program and how many are there? The answers vary across the federal government—and can be based on organizational structure, funding authority, and other characteristics. This lack of a common definition—or at least a way to collect and present comparable information for programs that are defined differently—has hindered past efforts to develop an inventory.

A comprehensive listing of programs, along with related funding and performance information, would help federal decision makers and the public better understand what the government does, what it spends, and what it achieves each year.

What GAO's Work Shows

Since 2014, we have made 12 recommendations to help the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) effectively plan for and create a program inventory that provides complete, comparable, and useful information.

Recent OMB efforts demonstrate progress toward these recommendations. For example, OMB published a program inventory implementation plan in November 2021.

The plan identifies a series of pilot programs to test different approaches to identifying federal programs and related information, leading up to full inventory implementation (required by statute in 2025).

OMB's plan fully addressed one of our past recommendations. The plan incorporated a systematic approach for developing a useful inventory, identified by our past work. If OMB effectively implements its plan, it could demonstrate progress toward our remaining 11 recommendations.

Key Program Inventory Milestones and Actions

Beyond our inventory-related recommendations, our past work has identified various practices that could also help ensure OMB’s planning and implementation efforts are successful.

Our past work has found that the sustained commitment and direct involvement of leaders, along with early and frequent engagement of a range of stakeholders, are critical to the success of federal efforts. This is especially true for developing an inventory that encompasses all federal programs. Practices for specific stakeholder groups include those related to:

  • Consulting with Congress, given its power to create and fund federal programs and activities;
  • Leveraging the expertise and resources from (1) federal agencies and officials through collaborative mechanisms such as working groups, and (2) individuals and organizations outside the federal government using various tools and approaches collectively known as open innovation (e.g., open dialogues and idea generation); and
  • Identifying and meeting the expectations and needs of users.

Since 2011, we have issued annual reports assessing federal programs for potential fragmentation, overlap, or duplication. As part of that work, we developed a guide in 2015 for conducting those assessments. This guide includes different approaches for identifying programs, such as through the benefits, services, or products they deliver.

In 2016, we identified five practices, including defining criteria to determine whether, how, and when to more broadly implement the approach being tested by a pilot program. Statutory requirements enacted in 2021 directed OMB to ensure its implementation plan reflects best practices for effective pilot programs.

We have identified a governance framework to ensure effective data management, along with practices to collect and present federal program data on a publicly available website.

Challenges and Opportunities

Given the size and scope of the federal government, developing a complete inventory of federal programs is a complex undertaking.

OMB’s plan lays out an iterative approach, using pilot programs, to identify lessons learned and incorporate them into subsequent efforts to implement a complete inventory.

We plan to continue to monitor these efforts and provide periodic assessments to Congress.

For more information, contact Dawn G. Locke at (202) 512-6806 or

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