The Government Accountability Office added three new items to its biennial list of high-risk federal programs, which it released to Congress on Wednesday. There’s some good news though: One important issue was removed from the high-risk list—the multi-agency effort to manage terrorism-related information—and progress on other programs over the last decade has resulted in savings of $240 billion, GAO estimates.
To the grab bag of what now includes 34 programs across government in urgent need of improvement, Congress’ watchdog added the 2020 Census, tribal health and education programs run by the Interior and Health and Human Services departments, and environmental programs run by the Energy and Defense departments.
GAO found that managing terrorism-related information was no longer high risk because “significant progress had been made to strengthen how intelligence on terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement is shared among federal, state, local, tribal, international, and private sector partners.”
To get off the list, programs must make sufficient progress in leadership and capacity, develop an action plan, monitor progress and demonstrate improvement over time. Two-thirds of programs on the list met at least some criteria.
Lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee quizzed Comptroller General Gene Dodaro and his staffers on a range of issues, including the tax gap, improper medical payments, cybersecurity and operations at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. One top Democrat pointed out that the Trump administration’s current 90-day federal hiring freeze only makes it harder for agencies to fulfill GAO’s recommendations.
Among the areas of concern GAO noted:
- Programs affecting Native Americans. Agencies including Interior’s Bureaus of Indian Education and Indian Affairs and HHS’s Indian Health Service “have ineffectively administered Indian education and health care programs and inefficiently developed Indian energy resources,” the report said. Thirty-nine of 41 GAO recommendations on this issue remain unimplemented.”
- Environmental liabilities. The government’s environmental cleanup liabilities rose from $212 billion in 1997 to $447 billion in 2016, and only 13 of GAO’s 28 recommendations have been implemented in this area.
- The upcoming 2020 Census. The Census Bureau, building on a 2010 effort that was the most expensive in history ($12.3 billion), is struggling to implement information technology innovations for 2020, and has implemented only six of GAO’s 30 recommendations.
“These are good people doing a lot of good work, they're telling us, they're screaming at us, to actually get something done and address these issues,” Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said of GAO’s work.
But Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D- Md., warned that President Trump’s recent actions “threaten to undermine many governmentwide recommendations the nonpartisan experts at GAO have issued.” Citing the areas of managing strategic human capital, modernizing financial regulation, and managing fiscal exposure to climate change, Cummings blasted Trump’s 90-day hiring freeze.
“It would exacerbate the skills gaps at federal agencies, making them less productive and effective,” he said, singling out auditors who work for inspectors general and the GAO’s conclusion that 15 federal areas had such gaps.
GAO’s Dodaro noted that “hiring freezes haven’t proved effective in the past” and would make it harder for agencies to improve in areas on the high-risk list, even though the Trump plan has carved out exceptions. Such freezes shrink revenues collected by the Internal Revenue Service and cause agencies to hire contractors and temporaries “while contract management is already on the high-risk list” at Defense, Energy and NASA, he said.
“We already have skills gaps in Social Security, cybersecurity, acquisition management, oil and gas management, and nurses” at the Veterans Affairs Department, Dodaro added, plus there are retirements coming. “If you want to reduce the workforce, you have to reduce the functions they’re doing. And you have to be able to realign the workforce.”
He said GAO will monitor the Trump plan, which is due to be refined in April by the Office of Management and Budget Office of Personnel Management.
On managing federal real property, Dodaro welcomed the law Congress recently passed setting up a private board to assemble packages of assets that are ready for sale, subject to an up-or-down vote in Congress.
On the Census, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., expressed dismay that one of four home visits by Census enumerators fails to contact the resident. Christopher Minh, GAO’s managing director of strategic issues, said technological innovations can’t always solve such problems as the rise of gated communities and diversity in languages. Some delays in Census Bureau testing of innovations, he said, risk being delayed by resource shortfalls related to Congress’s use of continuing resolutions for a final budget. “The key is testing for quality as well as to maintain efficiency,” Minh said.
“If we weren’t worried, we wouldn’t put it on the list,” Dodaro assured Connolly.
Cybersecurity is another area of concern. Dodaro called for legislation and greater interagency coordination to reduce the threat of cyber breaches. His staff pointed to the failure of agencies to install timely software patches on legacy systems that may no longer be supported. “There’s been more attention, but not enough actual fixes by agencies,” Dodaro said, promising to alert incoming Trump administration agency heads.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., credited GAO with doing more with less, and Dodaro confirmed that his team has shrunk from 3,250 employees before sequestration kicked in to fewer than 3,000 now. Issa noted that some agencies withhold access from GAO, something the Obama administration failed to address, he said. “We have to hold this administration to higher standards to cooperate with GAO.”
Dave Mader, who recently left OMB as controller in the Obama administration to join Deloitte, told Government Executive on Wednesday he thinks GAO has improved its methodology in defining criteria for measuring agency progress. The high-risk list “goes hand in hand,” he said, with OMB’s recent update of Circular A-123 to emphasize enterprise risk management. Both “will help agencies set priorities for resource allocation to address these issues,” he said, “and give Cabinet secretaries an early indication of their vulnerabilities in the future.”