Agencies report progress in high-risk management areas

Nearly 80 percent of major federal agencies have made progress over the past two years in addressing their biggest management challenges, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

GAO has periodically identified "high-risk" government operations-federal agencies and programs vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement-since 1990.

Beginning in 1999, GAO has compiled a Performance Accountability and High Risk Update with a high-risk list, every other year. The list was streamlined from 26 to 22 high-risk agencies and federal management programs when it was last compiled in January 2001.

From September to October, GAO analyzed agencies' fiscal 2001 performance reports and fiscal 2003 performance plans, required by the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, to see how well agencies have responded to two governmentwide high-risk areas identified in 2001: strategic human capital management and information security. The report (GAO-03-225) also looks at how agencies have addressed their unique management challenges.

Of the 23 agencies reviewed, 18 took action to remedy all high-risk management areas in fiscal 2001 and 16 plan on doing more to overcome management challenges in fiscal 2003. Five agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Education Department, Justice Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Agency for International Development, failed to report any progress in improving at least one of the specific challenges they faced.

All 23 agencies reported progress in dealing with strategic human capital management issues, an area added to the GAO's high-risk list in 2001. In addition, 21 of the 23 agencies described progress toward enhancing information security in their fiscal 2001 reports.

For instance, the Energy Department addressed the strategic human capital management challenge by holding a human capital summit. The Interior Department came up with a plan to get its critical computer systems to a "level 3" compliance with the Federal Information Technology Security Assessment Framework by 2003 and to a "level 5," the highest possible level, by 2005. The framework allows agencies to determine how well their information technology programs are protected against cyberattacks and other threats to their security.

In general, agencies needed to do a better job of finding measures to evaluate progress on management challenges, GAO's report said. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's annual report said the agency planned to streamline its organization and develop its workforce, but the report listed no measures to track progress in meeting either goal.

Agencies also had trouble making progress in addressing their own specific management challenges, the report said. The Housing and Urban Development Department, which responded to an agency-specific challenge by planning to improve oversight of its single-family mortgage programs, was an exception.

Officials from the 23 agencies agreed with the overall GAO report, but expressed concern over the accuracy of a few technical details.

GAO plans to compile a new list of high-risk areas and release it in January in its biennial Performance Accountability and High Risk Update.

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