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Bill Virgin: We should be outraged by all of this

Forty-four separate job-training programs. Fifteen agencies involved in food safety. Twenty-four involved with federal data centers. Eighteen programs in domestic federal food assistance, 56 programs on financial literacy, 80 for “transportation disadvantaged persons,” 82 on improving teacher quality.

The recent Government Accountability Office report on federal-government overlap and duplication of offices, programs, initiatives, missions and responsibilities is as depressing to read as it is unsurprising.

Here’s what will be even more depressing, and less surprising: When we read that, apart from an initial burst of outrage, nothing was done to capture even a portion of the billions that might be saved. The report didn’t even generate much outrage.

WHERE’S THE OUTRAGE?

Perhaps the absence of pitchforks, feathers and bubbling tar might be attributed to the hard slog posed to those trying to digest the report. The list of acronyms takes three of the report’s 345 pages. A summary of the report on the GAO website is so typographically dense as to discourage further reading – apparently electronic paragraph breaks are exceedingly expensive, given how infrequently they’re used.

Perhaps the public would prefer not knowing how government sausage is made, seeing how many have been snacking on it. It’s the same phenomenon that frustrates efforts to cut government spending or simplify the tax code; reform is fine as long as it’s someone else being reformed, and paying for the privilege. Or, maybe outrage has been replaced by shrugs of resignation.

The Grand Canyonesque budget deficits faced at the federal level ought to be sufficiently motivating to address the problem of multiple agencies with often duplicative, sometimes conflicting approaches to the same problem.

Not so. The News Tribune’s Katie Schmidt reported a week ago that Gov. Chris Gregoire’s considerably more modest proposals to consolidate various state agencies and offices have run into enough opposition to make passage doubtful this legislative session. The state auditor’s office hasn’t done as sweeping a report as GAO, but in late 2009 it issued a performance review with such recommendations as reducing the number of agency data centers and servers. Only those with the capacity to be surprised by human nature are shocked by this. Every one of those offices and programs has a sponsor and a constituency. And, it’s a lot more fun to create a new program than to be the spoilsport who eliminates the department and the jobs and money that go with it.

Once created, the natural tendency of a bureaucracy is to look for more things to meddle in, even if someone else is there. It’s not just a case of defending the turf you’ve got, but adding to the territory.

The resulting tangle is programs doing one another’s work, and perhaps none of them doing it well. In that case, the obvious solution is to set up yet another department to “oversee” or “coordinate” what all the other departments are doing – think Homeland Security or the offices and programs created in the wake of the financial-sector debacle.

The brute-force approach would be to pick one, two at the most, of those 15 or 18, or 24 or 44 or 56 or 80 programs doing the same thing, and tell the rest, “sorry, go home.” Unlikely? Perhaps.

But even American taxpayers have limits of patience, money and willingness to take whatever the government is handing out, and things could get dire enough for them to take an more drastic approach – turning out the lights on all of them.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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