Federal agencies across the government are grumbling about reduced budgets forced by automatic spending cuts agreed upon by the White House and Congress.
Perhaps they could just do a better job of managing the resources they have. Two recent studies from George Mason University and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) point, for example, to the tendency of many federal agencies to spend a large portion of their annual budgets in the last month of the fiscal year.
Agency administrators no doubt fear that if they don’t spend everything Congress has appropriated, their budgets will be cut next year. But the practice is demonstrably wasteful.
The NBER study, published in 2013, suggests that the government could improve the quality of its purchases by as much as 13 percent by allowing agencies to roll over unused funds instead of “forcing” them to spend them by the end of the fiscal year. That would mean getting what agencies need for less.
An example of the cavalier attitude federal managers sometimes display toward getting value for money comes from a study by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security of the deportation practices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which sometimes shifts a deportable alien from one detention center to another and back, over periods as long as five months, before putting the individual on a flight home.
ICE also often hires charter aircraft to fly illegal immigrants back to their countries of origin. In more than a third of the cases examined by the Homeland Security IG office, the chartered aircraft was sent on its way before its seats were filled. The average transportation cost per deported alien varied between a low of $419 and a high of $1,228, because ICE pays a fixed cost for the charter.
The IG report found that ICE could have saved more than $40 million dollars over a three-year period just by filling its charter flights.
It also found that the agency did not keep adequate data on deportations, leading to inefficient operations. ICE accepted most of the IG findings.
In the light of the more than $18 billion the Obama administration spent last year on Customs, Border Patrol and ICE operations, the savings identified by the IG’s finding may seem trivial.
But to adapt an old saying to the scale of today’s government, if you take care of the millions, that will help the billions — and maybe even the trillions? — take care of themselves.