GAO: Data problems could be costing feds billions

A new report attributes many federal agency redundancies to a failure to manage, or even collect, the right data.

money on fire

With billions of dollars on the line, agencies are struggling to streamline their data collection and processing.

On April 13 the Government Accountability Office released its sixth annual report on federal fragmentation, overlap and duplication, offering 92 new recommendations for improvements all across government. Several of those recommendations focused on problems of IT and data.

The IRS received particular scrutiny at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on GAO's report.

The IRS runs nine separate referral programs to accept tips from the public on potential tax fraud.

Not only do those nine programs fail to share information effectively, but the information they do share is often processed by hand.

"Clerks in the general information referral program, for example, manually screened over 87,000 letters and Forms 3949-A, Information Referral, in 2015," GAO reported. "They then routed the referrals to other IRS divisions for additional manual screening and possible examination."

It's a massive problem that could be solved with better coordination and a centralized IT system to handle tips, GAO said.

"We intend to bring the referral process down to one centralized activity," said IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement John Dalrymple. Part of that centralization will include allowing tipsters to submit information online, he added.

The move is still in planning stages, but Dalrymple promised a timeline by next month.

The IRS also was questioned over its investments in cell-site simulators, or Stingrays. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) questioned why the cash-strapped agency's spending on eavesdropping equipment was justified.

In a November 2015 letter to lawmakers, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said the IRS had used its Stingray 37 times.

Other agencies targeted by GAO's report included the Defense Department and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

CMS was dinged for failures to share information effectively with state agencies. DOD was criticized for a lack of solid weapons systems portfolio management, and for duplicative databases.

DOD employs two different systems to track information on service-related health hazard exposure: the Military Exposure Surveillance Library and the Defense Occupational and Environmental Health Readiness System.

These databases are used to help establish whether veterans' disabilities are connected to their military service.

When it was being designed, DOEHRS was intended to function as a centralized electronic repository, but as GAO noted, the Pentagon has been struggling for years to merge systems.

Nowadays, GAO found, DOD can't be sure when data may have been duplicated across the two systems, implying potential duplicative efforts. And since neither system is a one-stop-shop for data, DOD can't get a comprehensive picture of service-related health issues.

The Pentagon plans to issue new guidance promoting centralized reporting this year, but when exactly health hazard exposure data will be pooled in one place -- or why it has taken more than a decade so far to get there -- remains unclear.

"I can't give you a satisfactory answer on that," testified DOD's Assistant Deputy Chief Management Officer David Tillotson. "I can tell you we are working on it."

All told, Congress and executive branch agencies have fully addressed only 41 percent of GAO's duplication-slashing recommendations since 2011, but those actions have generated $56 billion in financial benefits, GAO said.

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