GAO’s Work Has Yielded $1.1 Trillion in Taxpayer Savings Since 1999. But Congress Can Do More to Leverage Them.
The United States faces growing governance and fiscal challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the federal government’s limited ability to manage a national crisis. The Congressional Budget Office warns that the national debt will eclipse GDP in 2021.
Regardless of who wins in November, Congress and the next administration must answer these challenges. The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) nonpartisan oversight is a valuable tool for achieving government savings and improving governance.
In a new Lincoln Network report, Dan Lips reviews 21-years of GAO's annual performance and accountability reports to analyze the federal watchdog’s impact.
The report presents the following key findings.
- According to its estimates, GAO’s work over the course of these 21 years has resulted in more than $1.1 trillion in financial benefits to the federal government and more than 25,000 other improvements. The lowest annual return-on-investment during this span of time was $57 in financial benefits for each dollar in funding for GAO.
- GAO does not document all of the financial benefits achieved; however, the Office does include examples of work that yielded major financial benefits in each report. The reports detail approximately $640 billion of the more than $1.1 trillion saved during the period.
- GAO’s work related to the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) yielded the most financial benefits ($275 billion and $128 billion, respectively). Much of these savings are due to large defense acquisition programs and curbing improper payments.
- Since 2011, GAO’s congressionally mandated annual reports examining duplication across federal programs have yielded a total of $429 billion in savings.
- GAO reports that the four-year implementation rate of its recommendations was 77% as of 2019, which is generally consistent with prior years. (For recommendations made in FY 2015, GAO reports that its implementation rate was 21% after year one, 40% after year two, 56% after year three, and 77% by year four.) The cost to the government of unimplemented or slowly implemented recommendations is unknown.
- GAO reports that survey data shows that its customers believe its products are delivered in a timely manner; however, GAO does not provide estimates for how long reports take to prepare.
Based on these findings, Lips offered the following recommendations:
- Congress and the Comptroller General should improve the transparency of GAO’s annual Performance and Accountability reports by requiring detailed descriptions of all financial benefits and ROI estimates. GAO could also create new metrics to evaluate its timeliness. The Comptroller General should report to Congress an annual estimate of the cost of unimplemented GAO recommendations.
- Congress should increase appropriations for GAO, including strengthening the Comptroller General’s ability to conduct oversight of science, technology, and acquisition programs and to prevent improper payments, both of which have proven to be drivers of major cost savings. As GAO improves the transparency of its annual reporting on financial benefits to government and taxpayer savings, Congress could consider providing a percentage of saved funding directly to GAO to increase its capacity and ability to support Congress.
- Congress should leverage GAO by mandating annual reporting on more topics, building on the major savings yielded by GAO’s work on government duplication. For example, Congress should require GAO to conduct regular reporting on government-wide improper payments, which the Office has identified as a $170 billion annual problem.
“As a former Congressional staffer and customer of its work, I know firsthand how the hardworking auditors at GAO conduct oversight on behalf of Congress and the public improve the federal government’s performance. Reviewing its cost-savings estimates since 1999 shows why funding GAO is one of the best investments Congress makes,” Lips explained. “But it also highlights how much more taxpayer savings and improvements could be made if Congress leveraged GAO’s nonpartisan oversight to have a greater impact.”
Lincoln also sent a letter to GAO requesting additional details about GAO’s methodology for cost savings estimates from FY1999 to today. While not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, GAO’s policy “follows the spirit of the act consistent with GAO’s duties and functions as an agency with primary responsibility to the Congress.” GAO confirmed that it was processing his information request as of September 28th.