Testimony of Dan Lips before the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch U.S. Government Accountability Office Appropriations
The following testimony was delivered on April 24, 2020
Chairman Hyde-Smith, Ranking Member Murphy, and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Dan Lips. I am the Director of Cyber and National Security with the Lincoln Network, a non-profit organization that serves as a bridge between Silicon Valley, other technology hubs, and national policymakers. I submit this testimony in support of the Comptroller General’s FY2021 budget request for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Further, I urge the Subcommittee and Congress to provide necessary funding levels, resources, and hiring authorities to allow GAO to expand its Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team.
To summarize, GAO is one of the best investments Congress makes on behalf of American taxpayers, and the new STAA team has the potential to dramatically increase the value that GAO provides Congress and the nation. The STAA team will strengthen the Legislative Branch’s capacity to understand complex scientific and technological issues and to better forecast and address emerging challenges, including global pandemics and cybersecurity threats. Moreover, the STAA’s planned use of data science and advanced analytics to enhance GAO’s auditing process could create billions in government savings.
GAO’s FY2021 Budget Request in Historical Context
The Comptroller General proposed a 12 percent increase over FY2020 funding levels. This may seem like a lot given the nation’s current public health and fiscal challenges. But a review of historical data shows that this increase would rebuild GAO’s reduced capacity from previous staffing levels and that additional funding will yield considerable savings and improvements.
GAO’s request includes funding 3,250 FTEs, an increase of 50 positions. To put this into historical context, GAO had more than 5,000 employees thirty years ago. GAO’s workforce size has fallen by 1,800 employees since that time and is now two-thirds its staffing level in 1991.
Despite operating at a reduced capacity since the 1990s, GAO has a track record of delivering significant government savings and program improvements over the past 20 years. A review of GAO’s self-reported annual estimates of savings, government improvements, and return on investment (ROI) since 1999 shows that GAO’s work has resulted in more than $1.1 trillion in taxpayer savings and more than 25,000 other improvements. See Table 1.
Table 1—GAO Reported Savings, Government Benefits, and Annual ROI (FY1999-2019)
|FY Year||Reported Savings (billions of $)||Other Government Benefits||Estimated Annual Return-on-Investment ($)|
Source: Data are from GAO’s annual reports since FY1999, which are available at GAO.gov.
GAO’s annual ROI has been more than $100 in savings for each taxpayer dollar invested in GAO every year since 2012. Moreover, GAO’s average annual ROI between 2011 and 2018 was $126 compared to an average of $84 between 1999 and 2010. (The former average does not include GAO’s estimated $338 ROI reported for 2019, which was significantly higher than past years. GAO stated that these historic savings were due to $136 billion in savings related to a DOD weapon system procurement and a $24.2 billion reduction in student loan costs.)
What happened at the beginning of the last decade that increased GAO’s annual return on investment in the years that followed? One change is that Congress required GAO to issue annual reports on governmentwide duplication beginning in 2011. In 2010, former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (full disclosure: my boss from 2011 to 2015) passed an amendment to the debt limit increase to require GAO’s annual duplication reports. As of 2019, GAO estimates that its annual reports and work on duplication have yielded $262 billion in financial benefits since 2011. This shows how Congress’s strategic direction can leverage GAO’s impact.
The Case for Expanding the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) Team
With this context, the Comptroller General testified that additional funding will be used in part to grow the STAA team. He stated that current and new appropriations will be used to increase the STAA team from its current level of 100 positions to 140 positions in FY2021. Further, he stated that the STAA would focus on several priorities, including conducting technology assessments and providing other scientific and technical assistance to Congress, improving oversight of major acquisitions, technology, and science programs, and advancing GAO’s use of data science and analytics in its auditing. All of these priorities will yield significant value for Congress, particularly as the nation faces a pandemic and related economic impacts.
Improving Congressional Science and Technology Capacity
Enhancing Congress’s science and technology capacity is a recognized issue of bipartisan concern. The Congressionally mandated National Academy of Public Administration report issued in November recommended developing GAO’s STAA as part of the solution to enhance Congressional capacity for science and technology. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of the Congress’s bipartisan recommendations include “[r]eestablishing and restructuring an improved Office of Technology Assessment.” In a report for Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Lincoln Network’s Zach Graves and Demand Progress’s Daniel Schuman recommend a hybrid approach to improve Congressional S&T capacity—including reestablishing the OTA while developing GAO’s capacities and specializations. “GAO’s STAA unit has shown significant competence in building its technology assessment capacity,” Graves and Schuman write, “It should continue to take on a significant portion of OTA’s original mission.”
As Congress considers whether to reestablish the OTA, the STAA is well positioned to play a lead role in enhancing Congress’s capacity. The STAA will help Congress understand, analyze, and forecast major issues involving science and technology (such as risks related to cybersecurity threats and global pandemics), as well as develop legislation and conduct oversight to address these challenges with greater independence. The STAA will also provide valuable technical assistance evaluating federal research and development investments.
Improving Oversight of Federal Technology, Acquisitions, and Science Programs
Strengthening GAO and the Legislative Branch’s ability to oversee major technology, acquisitions, and science programs will improve government performance and national security. For example, GAO has identified federal information security and cybersecurity as a high-risk issue since 1997. GAO has warned that the DOD’s $1.6 trillion acquisition program is a high-risk issue. A 2019 GAO report identifying the Defense Department’s supply chain risk management as a high-risk area served as a catalyst for reform within DOD. GAO’s past oversight of major DHS science and technology programs have helped end or reform ineffective programs and acquisitions. GAO’s work has also informed Congress and the executive branch about the need to rethink the nation’s approach to managing risk. Monitoring agencies’ acquisitions programs presents a significant challenge for Congress, particularly when those programs involve science and technology. Growing the capacity within GAO to oversee technology, acquisitions, and science will help Congress better fulfill its Article I responsibilities, strengthen national security, and improve Congress’s ability to foresee major risks like the current pandemic.
Using Data Science and Advanced Analytics to Strengthen GAO Auditing
The STAA team’s plan to apply data science and advanced analytics to enhance GAO’s traditional auditing work will modernize and improve GAO’s role in Congressional oversight in significant ways. GAO’s Chief Data Scientist Taka Ariga recently explained to me how the STAA plans to use data analytic: “The nexus of scalable computational power and innovative data science techniques enables analyses based on 100% of the data instead of a more traditional, sample-based approach. In turn, we can accelerate the speed and depth at which we identify, consume, and act on patterns, behaviors, correlations, and anomalies.”
Applying data science has the potential to revolutionize oversight. For example, imagine if the federal government was able to use similar kinds of analytics that banks use to monitor consumers’ credit card transactions. GAO estimates that governmentwide improper payments have totaled $1.4 trillion since 2003, when Congress required agencies to begin reporting them. GAO reports that “federal entities estimated about $141 billion in improper payments” in FY2017. Potential savings from using data analytics and continuous oversight to monitor and prevent improper payments could exceed tens of billions of dollars per year.
Beyond achieving savings and eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, applying data science and advanced analytics to government oversight could help Congress address other issues of bipartisan concern, such as identifying root causes of the opioid overdose epidemic and human trafficking, by analyzing multiple data sets and identifying patterns across government programs.
Thank you again for the opportunity to submit testimony. Understanding the nation’s urgent public health and fiscal challenges, I urge the Subcommittee to recognize the potential long-term value of investing in expanding GAO’s capacity and particularly the STAA team to strengthen Congress’s scientific and technical capacity and to improve federal oversight.