Chapter 7: Streamline Processes and Save Taxpayer Dollars
When constituents send their representatives to Washington, they aren’t thinking about how that individual will manage the administrative functions of their congressional offices. It’s also probably not something that Members spend much time thinking about before being elected to Congress. Members come to the House to serve their constituents and legislate. But while back-office operations like identifying which constituent services platform to use, which technology applications the staff will need, paying bills, performing or contracting Information Technology (IT) services and support, and managing the office budget do not grab headlines, they are incredibly important and often require a dedicated staffer (or two) to effectively manage. Each hour of staff time and each dollar spent on administrative activities is a resource that could be utilized to support constituent or legislative work. As Committee Member Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon noted in a November 15, 2019 hearing on administrative efficiencies:
Image 7.1: Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon listens to a witness during the Select Committee’s hearing on administrative efficiencies.
“…[A]s a new member, one of the first things I had to deal with was getting this relatively limited pot of money and wanting to devote it more to constituent and legislative ideas than things like hiring accountants and everything else.”
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, November 15, 2019
The Committee is tasked with making recommendations on administrative efficiencies, including purchasing, travel, outside services, and shared administrative staff. The Committee approved recommendations with the goal of saving taxpayer dollars and reducing costs through greater efficiency, without sacrificing constituent services. The Committee’s recommendations encourage the House to keep pace with evolving private sector administrative practices and adapt modern approaches to solving common administrative challenges. The remainder of the chapter will first, review prior administrative reform efforts, followed by an overview of the Committee’s five recommendations.
Congress’ representative design gives deference to Members of Congress in choosing how to run their office, which can naturally result in administrative inefficiencies. Instead of a centralized system, the House operates more like 435 small businesses. In addition to Member offices, there are 23 standing or select committees as well as leadership offices, each with its own independent authority.
At the Committee’s November 15, 2019 hearing on administrative efficiencies, Mr. Drew Wilson, former Senate Sergeant at Arms, testified on administrative operations in the Senate, and highlighted stark differences between the two bodies. Like the House, each Senator has the autonomy and discretion in choosing how to run their office operations. But unlike the House, the Senate Sergeant at Arms is responsible for most of the non-legislative, back-office functions of the Senate. Mr. Wilson testified that the Senate has found administrative efficiencies by moving printing, graphics, and mail operations off-site; and saved money on leasing district office space by centrally procuring leases and using General Services Administration (GSA) reimbursement rates. In the Senate, all IT procurement is done centrally through the Sergeant at Arms. Senators must choose their IT systems from a limited, approved list. Until the early 1990s, the House operated in a similar fashion, but after the House decentralized IT procurement in 1995, Members could purchase IT systems of their choice more quickly.
Image 7.2: Rep. Rob Woodall speaks during the Select Committee’s hearing on administrative efficiencies.
“But if I go back to 1994, right, we had this conversation, and we decided to go in exactly the opposite direction. We had a schedule of computer equipment, but it took so long to get the schedule approved and computers were moving so fast, we went away from that.”
Rep. Rob Woodall, November 15, 2019
Despite the prior efforts of decentralization, the House has continued debating how to best modernize administrative procedures. Mr. Michael Ptasienski, Inspector General of the House of Representatives, noted at the November 15, 2019 hearing that there has been movement towards more centralized administrative support to Member and committee offices, including converting constituent letters into electronic form, and assisting offices with 1-9 compliance. Another witness, Dr. R. Eric Peterson, a specialist in the non-legislative operations of Congress at CRS, noted additional, ongoing work by the CAO to proactively replace outdated technology systems and offer customer service to Member offices.
But despite these advances, and other Committee recommendations to streamline HIR services (Chapter 3), witnesses and experts identified potential opportunities where Congress could further improve administrative efficiencies. These recommendations are outlined in detail below.
Anyone who has ever shopped wholesale knows buying in bulk saves money. Concepts like bulk purchasing and competitive procurement are hardly cutting edge, but the House hasn’t kept pace with the private sector or the executive branch.
In 2018, the House Inspector General found that offices spent about $267 million on goods and external services. Member offices generally make routine purchasing decisions independently and, in many cases, end up ordering the same items from the same vendors. Maintaining a certain degree of autonomy is important for maintaining representation, but certain commodities have little representational value and could be purchased in bulk. Mr. Ptasienski identified the following areas where negotiating House-wide contracts or purchasing services for all offices centrally rather than independently could save the House money:
1. Publications and Reference Material: In calendar years 2015 and 2016, the House spent an average of $9.75 million on publications and reference materials. Fifty percent of this spending was with five vendors.
|2. Bottled Water: Offices paid $623,000 to bottled water vendors in 2016. There were 184 different suppliers, but 60 percent of the expense was with one vendor, and the top four suppliers accounted for 85 percent of this spending.|
|3. Office Supplies: The House has several purchase agreements for general office supplies, paper, and toner (including the House office supply store). Based on 2016 spending data, however, offices regularly utilize other vendors. During this period, the House spent a total of $5.6M with 576 different office supply vendors.|
Table 1: Cost-saving recommendations for bulk-purchasing
Standardization and centralized purchasing of House information technology has the greatest opportunity to yield savings. Not only is this an opportunity for savings through bulk purchasing, but it would yield ongoing savings by streamlining the support work of House Information Resources (HIR) and other IT professionals that secure the House network. For example, when iPhones came onto the market, and individual offices began to transition from Blackberries, they lacked security standards required by Congress, and congressional IT support had to spend a “small fortune” to patch iPhone security. Had iPhones been procured centrally, the security could have been solved much sooner, and at a reduced cost.
In some cases, support services offered by HIR and contracted IT support vendors significantly overlap. In 2012, House offices spent an estimated $6 million to hire vendors for IT support. Overall, end-user IT support becomes easier and less expensive when there is greater standardization. From a House perspective, this would significantly decrease the burden on individual offices to manage their IT resources, by making it easier for offices to comply with IT and security policies, and better protect the computing environment and network.
In addition to purchasing office equipment, travel expense reimbursement is a complex and time-consuming activity for House offices. For one, Members are required to document each receipt—many of which today are now electronic and not easily obtainable in hard copy form. The process of documenting and reviewing expenses for a single trip could take an hour or more of staff time. For comparison, to reduce paperwork and time spent on reimbursement, the GSA uses a per diem process for meal and incidental expenses. Rather than travelers collecting and itemizing receipts for each meal and incidental expense, executive branch employees are given a flat, predetermined rate when traveling.
Currently, the House only issues travel cards to Members and Chiefs of Staff, not other staff in personal offices who may be required to travel as part of their jobs. By expanding the travel card program to more staff, such as District Directors, Member offices could find efficiencies by tracking expenditures and expedite the employee reimbursement process.
Building off prior recommendations (Chapter 3) that encourage the development of a centralized HR hub, there is also a need for specialized administrative staff. As Dr. Petersen noted in his written testimony: “As House operations have become more complex, there has been an increase in the need for specialized understanding of House financial operations or information technology needs in Member offices.” Some offices assign these responsibilities to their legislative staff, while others hire specialized staff that support multiple offices. When combined with standardized training, increased availability of shared staff to support House financial and administrative services or information technology management may improve efficiency and the security, as well as potentially reduce the cost of Member office operations.
The recommendations described in this chapter aim to push the House to evolve its administrative practices and adopt modern approaches to solving day-to-day operational challenges. Unlike the executive branch, the House has unique organizational challenges that impede efficiency, because as an institution it values direct constituent representation over efficiency. But there is room for improvement. The House has made many reforms over the past decade that improve administrative efficiencies and can modernize further if encouraged to do so.
Image 7.4: Rep. Rodney Davis speaks during a Select Committee hearing.
“As a former staffer, I used to work with the CAO in purchasing, making sure that I understood the many processes in and around the House. And I was always amazed when I got here that some things never changed. And I think this Committee, in and of itself, has tried to push some of that change that we have been trying to push on the House Administration Committee for a few terms.”
Rep. Rodney Davis, November 15, 2019
From the start of Member orientation through bulk purchasing for Committees, changes can be made to make Congress more efficient and effective for taxpayers. Streamlining necessary training, modernizing signatures and paperwork, and collectively purchasing commodities like bottled water and office supplies will remove unnecessary administrative burdens from individual Members. Like the Senate, the House should establish a standard package of IT technology from which Member offices can choose. Centralizing the sourcing of IT systems would not only yield bulk savings but would reduce the ongoing IT maintenance costs and enhance cybersecurity. By expanding the use of the Travel Card Program, the House can efficiently track expenses and eliminate hours wasted on outdated administrative processes.
These recommendations were developed with the Member autonomy in mind—ensuring that Members can still operate an individual office but removing unnecessary administrative burdens, saving them time and taxpayer dollars. Ultimately, these reforms will help the House spend less on administrative resources and more on the constituent and legislative work that Members came to Washington to do in the first place.