Story of $16 muffin, true or not, makes a splash
- By John S. Monroe
- Oct 28, 2011
The federal government’s budget woes are clearly leaving a lot of people with frayed nerves.
In late September, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General highlighted examples of inappropriately expensive food and beverage items the department paid for at events it sponsored in fiscal 2008 and 2009.
The report made national news, largely thanks to one particularly tasty morsel: The department reportedly ended up paying $16 per muffin at one event. The $16 muffin quickly joined the ranks of the $1,000 toilet seat and $500 hammer as icons of government waste.
Unfortunately, the report turned out to be a bit inaccurate because the price of the “muffin” included coffee, fruit, juice, taxes and service charges. Whoops.
Nonetheless, the story resonated with many readers. Here is a sampling of their comments, which have been edited for clarity, length and style.
I believe there are two lessons here. First, agencies should take all audit reports very seriously: You never know what will show up in tomorrow’s news. The auditee should have argued and rebutted the finding. Second, when the truth is revealed — that the muffin did not really cost $16 — the audit report and the inspector general lose credibility.
— Former IG auditor, Cleveland
A deeper problem
I have worked with the government for more than 25 years, and over time, I have seen the question "What is the government's minimum need?” or “Is this requirement the government's minimum need?" go by the wayside.
The "use it or lose it" budget process is to blame for a great deal of waste in the federal government. At the end of the fiscal year, agencies ensure that all IT money not yet spent gets spent on hardware that they would never buy unless they had to spend the money. If returning unused budgeted funds were not penalized by a reduction in the next year's budget, much of this particular kind of waste would be avoided.
Federal employees will waste travel money whether through bad decision-making or outright fraud. In my area, people will fly to Washington for a one-day meeting and think nothing of paying $1,500 to $2,000 for a round-trip ticket. No reason they had to attend in person. These meetings could take place through videoconference or across the Web, but they spend the money.
A second look
Now that “muffin-gate" has erupted and seemingly taken hold in the campaign to bash everything government does, how about a focus on the actions of the press? The initial report was grossly in error, and the actual price of the food was probably less than what a Capital Hilton guest would pay. How about investigating those who pushed out the false information and then spread it virally? That would be interesting and truly responsible journalism.
— Dennis, San Diego
A quick fix
No doubt about it: The $16 muffins have destroyed America's economy. Once the feds switch over to buying Little Debbies by the case, things should turn around pretty quickly. Sheesh!
John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.