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Government Reports: A Look At The Numbers

by Michael Tasselmyer / /

This Congress is expecting to receive 4,291 reports from various government agencies. But a new feature in The Washington Post shows that lawmakers will actually read very few of them, if they are even written at all.

The story in The Post traces the long history of U.S. government reports, from the Mint’s annual update that began in 1792 to the 2000 law that required a briefing on the latest developments in dog and cat fur trading. Even in 1928, when there were only 303 reports to keep track of, legislators complained about the volume of reports they were sent every year.

Fast-forward a few decades and thousands of reporting requirements later, and many lawmakers and government employees have stopped reading and writing the reports altogether. Their inability to keep track of – let alone read and devote appropriate attention to – the reports is an instance of transparency and accountability gone awry, in that while many of the reports were intended to offer additional layers of oversight to government programs, they've become so numerous and overwhelming that the full benefits can simply become lost in the shuffle. One former staffer recounted to The Post how some of the thicker reports were literally used as doorstops, unread and disregarded.

The reporting carries a significant cost, both in man-hours and dollars. Although nobody can say for sure how much money is spent producing the reports each year, the last estimate made in 1993 projects it's somewhere in the neighborhood of $163 million. Combined with the fact that some of the reports are so narrowly focused (the Social Security Administration's report on printing operations) or outdated (The Post identified two required briefings on the long-since-dissolved Soviet Union), many in Washington are calling for an end to some of the more irrelevant or wasteful ones. In 2012, The White House compiled a list of 269 reports it wanted to eliminate; the House passed a bill recently that nixed 79 of them.

Although transparency and accountability are noble goals, the story in The Post shows that when it comes to government reporting requirements, there is a fine line between oversight and distraction.