Inventorying Federal Programs with IA Webinar

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been examining IA and developing a framework for how IA can be used to develop an inventory of federal government programs. The problem they are facing is inconsistency around definitions and information across agencies. The ultimate goal is to make government more transparent and reveal areas of duplication and overlap.

On November 30, 2017 the IAI invited the IA community to a webinar where the GAO team presented:

  • How IA Principles and practices can help organize, structure and present federal programs
  • Key steps to develop and maintain the inventory
  • Enable decision makers to more easily find and compare program information

The recorded IAI webinar featuring the USGAO can be found on our YouTube channel.

For documentation please read the USGAO report. 

Special thanks to our presenters:

  • Brian James, Assistant Director with the Government Accountability Office focusing on intenational taxation policy
  • Molly Laster, Physical Infrastructure Team in Transportation with an aviation focus
  • Andrew Nelson, Senior Analyst GAO on Education Workforce and Income Security Team who focuses on programs benefiting Alaskan natives and improving teacher quality 
  • Michelle Serfass, Headquarters office with Homeland Security and Justice issues who focuses on how ACF firearms are stored and with the Department of Justice (DOJ) systems missing persons 

The USGAO is a Congressional watchdog agency in the Legislative branch working directly for congress. Their job is to provide nonpartisan, objective advice to congress to help government function. GAO's mission is to support the congress to help the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government. GAO's core values are accountability, integrity and realiability. 

We'd like to also thank Logic Dept for sponsoring and hosting the webinar.

Below are the Questions and Answers following the webinar:

  1. How is GAO planning on getting buy in from their communities and stakeholders to implement the recommendations they will be making for this inventory? As part of this process we did quite a lot of work to get feedback from stakeholders like current OMB officials and Treasury who was involved with developing the inventory prior. The consensus was that this was the right approach to take. OMB specifically mentioned that this helped them rethink and reframe their approach. As part of our recommendation process at least once a year we check agency’s status and report this publically on our website since the inventory is a mandate and required by congress.

  2. Will you be creating a master lexicon and require other agencies to follow these definitions? How will you deal with semantic requirements... Will you penalize those using legacy terms? GAO is an audit agency and we make recommendations so ultimately it is the executive branch’s responsibility to implement the inventory program developed. It’s our opinion that IA is a valid approach and this could involve a controlled vocabulary to help with consistency, accuracy, reliability and validity of the information.

  3. What is the return on investment from this initiative? Bottom line it is not in the scope of the work. Our framework is broad to allow flexibility and adaptation for resources and other constraints. Significant potential benefits can come from this including eliminating duplication, overlap and fragmentation.  There could be other non-financial benefits or benefits that would be difficult to quantify.  For example, the inventory could support better and more efficient policy-making decisions.

  4. How might we capture and record civil discourse/conversations accurately in the service of decision-making? Within the context of the inventory, this is critical. The plan is to engage with stakeholders early and often when developing inventory with a good systematic process.

  5. How does the National Instant Criminal Background Check System integrate with recommendation from psychiatrists, mental health institutions and family members connect to local police officers to check in on and monitor people that are potentially public dangers? To aid in the prevention of rampage shootings and other heinous crimes are there local services or sub-community databases officers, family members, social workers and psychiatrists can access to direct these vulnerable individuals to find common relationships and interests with others? These communities or sub-communities would allow potentially dangerous individuals find people of similar interests to speak freely about their needs and concerns. The community acts as a reality check to these individuals and challenges the harmful thoughts and actions this vulnerable person maybe considering. My questions are probably out of scope, but I'm investigating how to get to the root cause of the triggers that cause people to become violent and dangerous to the public. We reviewed the system in 2016 to look at individuals and how they are denied firearms. We evaluated the system that checks on domestic violence records before transfer of firearms take place. Under Federal Law firearms dealers may transfer firearms to an individual if the FBI has not made a proceed or denial determination within three business days.  Most checks are completed before the transfer of firearms take place, however since 2006 there have been 6,700 firearms that were transferred to prohibited individuals. As a result of this analysis we recommended the FBI monitor this with the DOJ to establish a priority for improving timeliness of checks targeting the checks that seems to take longer. We’ll continue looking at this in the future as well.   

  6. Was the GAO web team involved at all in this effort? The team met with GAO web management colleagues early in the project to discuss how they organize our website and categorize content to support search capabilities.  This informed some of our early planning decisions.

  7. Curious if you've made any use of a Folksonomy? We did not explore the concept and practices of developing a folksonomy in much detail as part of this work.  However, we think it is possible that a folksonomy development process could be a useful way to identify commonly used terms and could be used in the early stages to help identify and select terms for a controlled vocabulary.  Also, it might be useful to use a folksonomy as a supplemental way to identify and tag programs and program content.  However, as we found in our work, relying strictly on an unstructured approach for identifying program and program information could limit the ability to compare programs within and across agencies.

  8. Thoughts on how you might scale and distribute this approach? (more contributors, distributed across and within agencies vs. a central GAO or OMB team). Obviously too much for any one team. Yes, developing a useful government-wide inventory would be a significant undertaking.  OMB, ultimately, would likely be responsible for implementation.  However, a team that includes and leverages staff and stakeholders across multiple agencies would likely be helpful in developing guidance, standards, policies, and processes.  Recent efforts across government to standardize spending data across the federal government (see ) might offer some insights and lessons learned that could inform the program inventory effort.  See also

  9. Have you considered user-generated tagging, within individual cities and possibly as a source for new terms to include in a central controlled vocabulary? Similar to our response to question 2 about a folksonomy above, we did not explore user-generated tagging in detail.  However, as mentioned, this could certainly be a useful way early in the process to identify and select potential terms for creating a controlled vocabulary.  In addition, as mentioned, user-generated tags could supplement the controlled vocabulary to support searching and findability of content.

  10. Facets + the decision rules mentioned seem more useful than a fixed taxonomy. Flexibility with consistency, rather than structured hierarchy... what are the goals for your taxonomy beyond what is offered by the CV, facets, and decision rules. As mentioned in our report and presentation, given the wide range of agency organizational, budget, and other structures, a fully consistent development of a standard definition for all programs is not likely feasible.  In this sense we recognize that some variability and inconsistency is likely to exist.  Within the context of our work, we discuss the importance of the decision rules as a way to create as much consistency as possible, given these obvious limitations.  It is our thinking that each facet will likely vary in terms of the extent to which flexibility might be allowed.  For example, we think a facet that describes a program’s funding level in a given year should be as standardized as possible to support comparability across programs within and across agencies. However, for a facet that describes a program’s beneficiaries it may make sense to provide more flexibility if it is determined that the type and range of potential beneficiaries might vary considerably from program to program.  

  11. Does the GAO have any partners or collaborators who track Program information at other levels of gov? e.g.: State? Local? We do not have formal ‘partners’ in this way.  However, as part of this work we spoke with several state officials to discuss their approach to developing a program inventory and also explored other efforts to develop taxonomies for government services and activities at the local, state, and federal levels.  There is no doubt that there are many insights that can be gleaned from these efforts at all levels of government that the executive branch might be able to leverage in their efforts to develop the inventory.  

  12. Did you find that people were afraid to offer information because they wanted to protect their programs? During the course of this work, we found that all of our case study agencies were highly cooperative.  In most cases, we met with budget offices and/or the strategic planning and performance divisions.  In all cases our sense was that officials recognized the value of creating more consistency in terms of how agencies identify and describe programs and program information, while recognizing and effectively communicating some of the significant challenges that would need to be overcome.

  13. Does the GAO share this info with COB? (Considering the budget convos on the Hill) (Response assumes question was referring to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO))With all GAO work, we coordinate with our sister agencies, CBO and the Congressional Research Service.  We do this to ensure that we can learn from work they’ve done in the area in the past and make sure we are aware of any ongoing efforts.  In this case, we did examine and leverage some past efforts from both agencies.  While we did not specifically send a copy of the final report to any of our initial contacts, it is quite common for all 3 agencies to monitor each other’s issued products given the complementary nature of our work.


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