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Feds Don’t Know How Many Cell Phones They Have Or How Much They Cost

Many federal agencies don’t know how many mobile devices like cell phones they have or how much they cost taxpayers, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Only the Department of Defense of the 15 departments and agencies GAO reviewed tracks device usage, but even the Pentagon and nine other agencies lack a complete inventory of devices they have. For example, NASA’s inventory excludes about 1,500 mobile devices, though the report did not say if they are lost in space.

Agencies don’t track the devices they know they have for “overuse, under-use or zero use, which are key indicators of potential inefficient use,” GAO said.

In other words, departments don’t know how many mobile devices they have, how much they’re used or how much they cost monthly, and consequently, can’t determine if their plans and expenditures are cost efficient.

The accountability office report is only the most recent illustration of a much bigger problem of federal departments and agencies not knowing what they have or how much they spend.

Some officials told GAO investigators that it “was not necessary to monitor device usage” because they had plans such as unlimited data. The accountability office responded that tracking usage would allow agencies to determine if a bigger or smaller plan would save more money “and thus not wasting federal resources. As a result, they may be paying for unused mobile devices or using inefficient service plans.”

Most of the reviewed agencies tracked at least a few aspects of their cell phone usage, but three “did not have any documented procedures for monitoring mobile device usage,” GAO said.

The Department of Commerce didn’t know how much the plans cost for nearly half of its mobile devices.

Even though the Defense Department was the only agency with a comprehensive process to track its spending, it hasn’t updated its data since November 2012 and lacks information for a quarter of its mobile devices’ plans.

Pentagon officials argued to investigators “maintaining an inventory comes at considerable expense and effort.”

The Defense Department’s inspector general reported in January that the Pentagon also couldn’t calculate how much it spent on conferences. The Department of Homeland Security lacks data on the mobile devices used at its multiple components. It did report information on devices used at its headquarters, but didn’t report their respective plans, meaning investigators couldn’t track if the devices consistently went over or under their contract terms.

Also, the rates and plans varied widely between agencies. The monthly plans ranged anywhere from $21 per month to $121.57 per month across the 15 departments examined by GAO. In fact, there was a $53 difference between the highest and lowest rates for unlimited plans.

“The variance in rates paid for the same services shows the potential to reduce costs,” GAO said. “The wide range of rates agencies reported paying reinforces the need for effective ongoing oversight of mobile device spending.”

An executive order issued in November 2011 directed agencies to create plans to reduce administrative costs for a range of products, including cell phones.

The government spent around $1.2 billion annually on an estimated 1.5 million mobile devices, and the Office of Management and Budget estimated that agencies could save $388 million “by consolidating or eliminating mobile device contracts.

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