- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2013

In the sometimes disorganized and overlapping world of the federal government, different agencies will occasionally end up paying for the same thing, leading to double the cost to taxpayers — or more.

The latest case of duplicative spending is the roughly $1.4 billion the government spent on autism research from 2008 to 2012. But investigators at the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog arm, are concerned that as much as 84 percent of that money was spent on redundant research.

“Having multiple agency involvement can also make it challenging to identify gaps and allocate resources across the federal government efficiently,” the GAO said in a report released this week. “It is incumbent on the agencies to effectively coordinate and monitor each other’s autism research.”

It’s an example of a problem that sometimes plagues the government: It’s difficult to coordinate something that employs an estimated 5 million people, and departments often fight over limited resources to ensure any spending winds up within its domain.

“In just the past two years, the Government Accountability Office has identified more than 1,362 duplicative programs accounting for at least $364.5 billion in federal spending every single year,” Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, wrote in a letter earlier this year. “In some cases, this unnecessary duplication results in taxpayers paying two, three, four or more times for the exact same function.”

For unnecessary duplication, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee and the agencies involved with this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by The Washington Times to examples of fiscal redundancy, waste and abuse.

One of the key problems, investigators said, is that departments involved in research aren’t communicating enough with each other.

The GAO found that each agency funded at least one research project with the same objectives as those in a different agency.

For example, five departments awarded roughly $15.2 million for 20 research projects that all had the same goal — intervention, services and support in diverse community settings, according to the GAO.

The departments do coordinate through meetings of the larger committee, but officials told the GAO that it’s up to individual offices to communicate with each other, not the coordinating committee’s role to police all autism spending.

The Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee “may have missed opportunities to coordinate federal autism activities and reduce duplication of effort and resources,” the GAO said.

The threat isn’t only to taxpayers’ wallets. Investigators said that poor communication means that federal research could be overly focused on one or two areas — leaving many potential subjects for research untouched.

In response to the GAO report, advocacy group Autism Speaks said it “reiterated its call for close monitoring of federal autism research spending to assure that scarce dollars are used efficiently in studying the nation’s fastest growing developmental disability.”

Duplication in research can sometimes be necessary, investigators said, because it allows agencies to confirm each other’s results. Some agencies took exception with the GAO calling redundant spending wasteful.

“Although this report acknowledges that duplication is necessary in science for the sake of replicating or corroborating results, it does not appreciate the full extent of the necessity of replication and the extensive policies in place at HHS and other federal agencies to prevent redundant studies,” said a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Mr. Coburn, a budget hawk who draws attention to redundant spending by government programs, said cutting down on duplication is especially important as agencies try to tighten their belts across the board.

“Duplication means paying more for less,” he said. “Sequestration requires doing more with less. Eliminating unnecessary duplication, therefore, provides a commonsense approach that can result in billions of dollars being saved across the government without sacrificing, and in some cases improving, services.”

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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