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Pentagon's Bad Bookkeeping Helps GAO Scoop Ig Noble Prize


Nan Swift
September 24, 2012

Each year, the creative people at Improbable Research honor “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think” by awarding the Ig Nobel Prize in fields such as physics, fluid dynamics, peace,  and chemistry to name a few. While denizens of DC might not be familiar with the great work of Rouslan Krechetnikov and Hans Mayor, who finally unlocked the secret as to why coffee spills when walking, many will recognize the winner of this year’s prize in Literature: the U.S. Government General Accountability Office (GAO).

Founded in 1921 by the Budget and Accountability Act, it is the role of the GAO to investigate “how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.” To this end it conducts audits, examines the performance of programs, and keeps an eye on our growing debt.  As the number crunchers in Congress it is surprising that they would be so honored for their work in literature.

The winning piece, published in May, is called “Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies.”  If that gripping title isn’t enough to make you pick up the report immediately for a quick read, the piece was summarized thusly for the Ig Noble Awards:

The US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.

It would be easy to dismiss this as yet another reason why we can’t have nice things – because the government spends time and taxpayer money on reports about reports about reports. But a quick glance at the summary reveals a far more sobering side to the funny report. Everyone loves a good report about a report about a report, but the underlying story is about how poorly the Department of Defense (DOD) estimates costs by deviating from the accounting standards published by the GAO and using inconsistent practices that can miss the full scope of DOD costs. GAO points out that not only are costs going unaccounted for, but also DOD cost estimates are lacking when it comes to documentation and accuracy.

With defense spending at the center of sequestration discussions and serious belt tightening needed across the board to halt our out of control spending, it is disconcerting to find that this budgetary third rail can’t even begin to get its books in order.  It is unjustifiable that when defense spending consumes 25% of the federal budget of government spending, the DOD can’t say exactly where that money is going.

The Ig Nobel award points less to any dysfunction on the part of bureaucrats at GAO than it does to the extreme bookkeeping ineptitude at DOD that necessitated the report in the first place. In light of looming cuts and repeated failed attempts to root out waste at the Pentagon, Sens. Coburn (R-OK) and Manchin (D-WV) have introduced S. 3487, the Audit the Pentagon Act.

Writing in the Washington Examiner, Coburn explains:

Auditing the Pentagon is critically important not just because it is the law but also because our ignorance of how we spend defense dollars undermines our national security. When the Pentagon can't tell Congress -- or itself -- how it is spending money, high-priority defense programs face cuts along with low-priority programs, the exact situation in which we find ourselves today under sequestration. In short, this bill helps the Pentagon to help itself. For instance, the United States Marine Corps did a study in which the corps found that "for each $1 spent on financial improvement, an estimated $2.77 in value was created for the warfighter." A thorough financial audit, done correctly, will free up existing resources for national security.

DoD's inability to pass an audit has potentially wasted billions and undermined our readiness and morale. For example, as Sen. Manchin has noted, while DoD is considering laying off service members, the Pentagon overspent $8 billion -- almost half of NASA's budget -- on information technology programs that are failing in part because DoD's books are such a mess. This would be enough money for more than 15,000 active-duty troops.

Some of the more egregious wastes of taxpayer funds at DOD such as microbreweries and an iPhone app for monitoring caffeine intake are themselves deserving of Ig Nobel prizes. CBS reports:

Pentagon dollars also funded studies that concluded:

- Men are perceived as more muscular if they're holding a gun, instead of tools.

- New Yorkers and Californians use different regional slang on Twitter.

- The first prehistoric bird probably had black feathers.

- The same basketball teams will always dominate March Madness.

Though the Ig Nobel award ultimately lampoons the extremely serious lack of financial accountability at the Pentagon, on the bright side according to a summary of this year’s prize winners and ceremony, GAO did not send a representative to the ceremony last week at Harvard University, thus saving taxpayers money. Had it been the Pentagon receiving an award for any of their wasteful studies, it would no doubt have involved a full report on The Curse of the Bambino and a flyover.  


 

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