Unread Reports as the Big Data Dump? Not Really.

The very same week the President released his breathless report on Big! Data!, the Washington Post has a story criticizing the sheer number and types of reports Congress requires from the Federal bureaucracy.

It started out with a good idea. Legislators wanted to know more about the bureaucracy working beneath them. So they turned to a tool as old as bureaucracy itself — the interoffice memo. They asked agencies to send in written reports about specific things they were doing.

Then, as happens in government, that good idea was overused until it became a bad one.


But as the numbers got bigger, Congress started to lose track. It overwhelmed itself. Today, Congress is not even sure how many of those 4,291 reports are actually turned in. And it does not try to save copies of all the ones that are.

So some agencies cheat and send in nothing. And others waste time and money sending in reports — such as the one on dog and cat fur — that simply disappear into the void.

To support its case, WaPo focuses on one report requiring Customs and Border Patrol to report on how much dog and cat fur products are being shipped into the US, which is probably a needless report (which is also probably why WaPo picked it out of the 4,291 it identified).

And WaPo — a member of the Fourth Estate that purportedly serves as a check on power — comes to this very dangerous conclusion.

The problem is that there is no system to sort the good ones from the useless ones. They all flow in together, which makes it hard for congressional staffers to spot any valuable information hidden in the flood.

First, the press is part of that system! Rather than throwing cat and dog fur, perhaps WaPo could have tried to distinguish those that were critical from those that are questionable and those that are clearly frivolous.

Moreover, it is the height of irresponsibility to absolve Congressional staffers — whose bosses are the only ones that can eliminate useless reports — of responsibility for reading the reports they get. Either the staffers must be held accountable for reading the reports, or for eliminating them. That’s how you fix the system. That’s why we’re paying them.

Ultimately, too, I’m not sure I buy the WaPo’s argument that these are useless reports. 4,291 seems like a not unreasonable amount of data for legislators to receive and read about the world’s biggest (perhaps now second biggest) economy, about DOD’s $526 billion budget, about the many federal benefit programs, about the expanding police state.

And if you look at the actual list (rather than WaPo’s admittedly snazzy but not very informative infographic on them), many — perhaps even most — of the reports make a lot of sense.

Consider the reports listed for General Services Administration, an entity with an annual budget of $26 billion, which has the ability to effect great change as the source of enormous spending, and one that has routinely experienced significant spending scandals.

  1. Activities and status of advisory committees in existence during the previous calendar year
  2. A report on the status of the high-performance green building initiatives under this subtitle
  3. Administration’s alternative fueled vehicle program
  4. A description of lost opportunities for waste-heat recovery from the project described in paragraph (A)
  5. A report on the use of photovoltaic energy in public buildings
  6. Violations by Federal agencies of Federal Records Act of 1950, as codified 1950
  7. Reports by Inspector General of particularly serious or flagrant problems, abuses, or deficiencies in the administration of programs and operations of the agency
  8. Activities of the Inspector General
  9. Accessibility to public buildings by the physically handicapped
  10. Prospectus proposing a building project or lease
  11. Location, space, cost, and status of each public building, the construction, alteration, or acquisition of which is to be under authority of the Act, and which was uncompleted as of the date requested
  12. Building project surveys as requested by either the Senate or House
  13. Use of underutilized public buildings and property for facilities to assist the homeless
  14. Summary of excess property disposal reports
  15. Evaluation of the operation of programs for donation of Federal surplus personal property; excess personal property transferred
  16. Excessive stocking of property, above reasonable inventory levels, by executive agencies
  17. Administration of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949
  18. Contracts to facilitate the national defense entered into, amended, or modified
  19. Acquisition cost of surplus real or related personal property conveyed for care or rehabilitation of criminal offenders during previous fiscal year
  20. Results of investigations of the cost of travel and the operation of privately owned vehicles to Federal employees while engaged in official business
  21. Annual determination of the average actual cost per mile for the use of a privately owned motorcycle, automobile, and airplane
  22. A plan to comply with Section 432 relating to energy and water conservation at General Services Administration facilities

Reports 1, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 17, and 18 are simply reports Congress needs to ask for to ensure there’s some visibility into the Agency, to ensure they’ll be informed if GSA finds something wrong itself. Reports 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 13, 14, 19, and 22 measure the efficacy of efforts to use GSA’s buying power to do some social good  (and report 9, on ADA accessibility, involves significant legal compliance).  Reports 15 and 16 address an area susceptible to graft.  Reports 20 and 21 are not only key to cost-benefit analysis of how Federal employees travel, but they apparently are tied to one of GSA’s most requested links. Some of these are also reports tied to an action, like buying a building. And all that amounts to less than 1 report for every $ billion American taxpayers give to GSA. If anything, there are a few more reports — that might identify obviously politicized or excessive spending, which is a persistent problem with GSA — that are missing.

Admittedly, that’s just one random agency. But aside from some entities the Federal government runs itself (like American Samoa and DC) as well as some Commissions over which there have been political fights in the past I’m not seeing a whole lot of waste here — though there may be some inefficiency in how the information is requested. I might grant that in the era of big data we need to automate this — in effect, give Congress a better way to Big! Data! the bureaucracies it oversees (though that would be awfully susceptible to abuse), but I don’t see a lot of information that shouldn’t be required from the bureaucracy.

I’m reminded how, 2 years ago, James Clapper claimed ODNI had to produce too many reports and should be permitted to eliminate 30 of them. He tried to get rid of the annual report on how many people have security clearance (one of the few ways we can measure the ballooning secret government). He tried to get rid of reports on Department of Homeland Security’s notoriously useless intelligence agency. He tried to eliminate reports on Chinese spying on the US and nuclear lab security, both persistent security issues. He tried to eliminate a report informing Congress what the privacy staffs of intelligence agencies are doing. In short, in the guise of onerous reporting, he tried to eliminate crucial oversight  (as well as a paper trail that could be FOIAed) on several areas of great public concern.

Or consider this: DOD cannot pass an audit. The biggest military in the world still is not required to account for the money it spends, both to itself and Congress.

And yet a newspaper is saying we require too much reporting from the great big bureaucracy?

I don’t buy it.

11 replies
  1. Ben Franklin says:

    Purported ‘new’ terrorist group being interrogated by Malaysian authorities wrt the disapperance of MH 370.

    The usual ‘patsies’ being rounded up.

  2. chronicle says:

    quote:”I don’t buy it.”unquote

    Vs what you do buy …lock stock and barrel… every April 15th. ie…

    quote:”The biggest military in the world still is not required to account for the money it spends, both to itself and Congress.”unquote

  3. P J Evans says:

    I think every major company uses things like the cost-per-mile report as a comparison for its own vehicle use.

    • emptywheel says:

      Right — that one and/or the IRS one. And how many of those 4,000 reports are similar, critical benchmarks used by everyone else?

  4. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    Please be more considerate. A congressman or senator only has a limited number of hours to do his or her job representing the people in a district or state. Grovelling before potential donors takes countless hours, and delivering goodies for those K-Street lobbyists is extremely time consuming as well. And please don’t forget the hours spent with a mistress or on a worthless jaunt to a foreign country. Finding time to read these pesky reports from the agencies and departments we’re supposed to be overseeing may be asking too much.

    • posaune says:

      OT, I know. I can’t help but comment on the WH press dinner last night: all the glams and the o’s grinning away, thinking “boy, do we have it fixed now.” Ugh.

      • P J Evans says:

        I think it’s more that they enjoy the occasion. I gather that Mr O is a better comedian than some of the ones they’ve brought in from Hollyweird.

  5. TarheelDem says:

    Interesting timing of that WaPo report–while we are still waiting for the release of the Senate Intelligence Committtee report of CIA torture. The real report.

    Some of that list WaPo provided are public reports required by legislation and only nominally directed to Congress. There seems to be legislative boilerplate that requires them, likely as a bow in the direction of oversight.

    WaPo in its journalistic fact-gathering failed to identify the page count on the smallest report, the largest report, and the report with the median count of pages.

    Back in the Golden Fleece era, there was some member of Congress (I don’t think it was Gaylord Nelson) pontificating about federal funding of a university study into the sex life of a mosquito [snicker]. Turns out that the research was basic research to inform a malaria reduction program.

    If Congress is having difficulty reading and integrating information in these reports, maybe the could be crowd-sourced online public work sessions to help them out.

  6. bloopie2 says:

    I went to WaPo to see the story. I was looking for the author’s name, to send him a link to this post. They have his name, but you can’t click on it and email him.

    Way to hold yourself accountable!

  7. P J Evans says:

    Laugh of the Day:

    US Attorney General Eric Holder warned Monday that no financial institution should consider itself “above the law,” amid investigations into alleged tax evasion and money laundering by European banks.

    “There is no such thing as ‘too big to jail’,” Holder said. Separately, a senior US official told AFP on condition of anonymity that probes of BNP Paribas and Credit Suisse are expected to lead to charges.

    Yeah, right: that’s why there are so many bankers in prison for fraud and money-laundering.

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