Two General Accounting Office reports, to be released today by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, fault the government's efforts to resolve long-standing problems of waste, fraud and mismanagement and suggest that key agencies lack important data to improve their program performance.
Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), apparently frustrated by a business-as-usual attitude at numerous federal agencies, sent letters yesterday to Cabinet heads and major agency chiefs outlining the problems and asked the agencies to respond to his concerns by meeting with his staff and congressional auditors.
"This committee is determined to be persistent and helpful in following up on getting these problems corrected once and for all," Thompson said in a statement.
The GAO reports assess the progress made by federal agencies in meeting the requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act, a 1993 law written by Republicans and endorsed by Vice President Gore as a building block for his "reinventing government" project.
The law was designed to show taxpayers what they get for their money. The Results Act requires federal agencies to write "strategic plans," set goals, develop measures of progress and write annual reports on how well they performed against their plans. The White House Office of Management and Budget and Congress hope to use the plans to help allocate spending and justify budget decisions.
But given its scope and abstruse nature, the Results Act may take years to fully implement. As with many federal management efforts, the law could bring what government reformers call "fundamental change," or it could be a bust, ending up as another legendary bureaucratic paperwork drill.
The GAO's latest reports found "moderate improvements" in fiscal 2000 Results Act plans prepared by the agencies when compared with their efforts the previous year.
But the GAO found "key weaknesses" in a number of the plans, particularly when it came to agency commitments to deal with their most serious management problems.
Thompson's committee, for example, said the GAO and agency inspectors general have identified more than 300 critical management problems for 24 large agencies, including the Cabinet departments. The Results Act plans contained specific and measurable goals addressing only about 40 percent of those problems, the committee said.
The management problems, GAO said, pose risks that "seriously undermine the federal government's performance and . . . leave it vulnerable to billions of dollars in waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement."
The plan prepared by the Treasury Department, for example, failed to address "high risk" areas at the Internal Revenue Service, GAO said. IRS efforts to manage unpaid tax assessments, reduce tax fraud and improve security for taxpayer records and receipts were not covered in the Treasury plan, GAO said. In contrast, the GAO and the Senate committee said, the Health Care Financing Administration has done a good job in focusing attention on Medicare fraud and has set up goals to reduce Medicare fee-for-service payment errors next year and again in 2002.
GAO also found that 20 of the 24 agency plans provided only "limited" confidence that the data the agencies produce or use would provide a credible basis for measuring their program performance. In some cases, the data are of low quality or not available, GAO said. In several cases, the agencies lack reliable and timely financial information, which makes it difficult for programs to control and reduce costs and evaluate their performance.
Overall, the GAO and Senate committee analysis showed the weakest Results Act plans came from the departments of Health and Human Services, State, Treasury, Defense and Energy, and the Small Business Administration.
The GAO and the committee praised the efforts of the Transportation Department, for best plan, the Social Security Administration, for most improved plan over last year, and the Education and Labor departments and the General Services Administration for producing high-quality plans.
OMB spokeswoman Linda Ricci said OMB has not seen the new GAO reports "but will evaluate the issues raised in them." OMB continues to work with agencies on preparation of performance plans, she said.
"We have made some good progress but change takes time, and any additional attention that can be focused on the issue helps further the goal of improving performance," she said.
CAPTION: Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson sent letters to agency heads outlining the problems and requesting meetings.