Sergey Nivens/

The Odds of Getting Off GAO’s High-Risk List Aren’t Good

Former Defense comptroller says the “crisis in the civil service” should be added to the catalog of government’s problems.

The dreaded list of high-risk programs published by the Government Accountability Office was characterized on Tuesday as “an opportunity for annual pillorying before Congress,” as “a full employment act for 60 Minutes producers,” and in several riffs on the Eagles’ hit song “Hotel California”—the one you can never leave.

A high-powered panel of public administration experts, agency executives and one GAO official involved in creating the list highlighted its value as a risk-management diagnostic tool and conversation starter for agency funding. They spoke at an event organized by the National Academy of Public Administration and sponsored by Management Concepts, a professional development and training company.

Since GAO began identifying high-risk problem areas in 1990, only about two dozen, or one-third, have successfully moved off the list, noted Don Kettl, professor at University of Maryland School of Public Policy. The Census Bureau has worked its way off twice, he noted, and the Homeland Security Department, despite the attendant challenges of merging 22 agencies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is “showing progress, light at the end of the tunnel,” Kettl said.

The key to exploiting the list’s value lies in “coming to grips with what could become a fundamental threat,” said keynote speaker Sean O’Keefe, former NASA administrator and deputy budget director under President George W. Bush.

The reaction in agencies, O’Keefe said,” is often to “put on your armor and become defensive about how unfair it is, and rehearse what to say to Senator So-and-So.” A better approach, and one used by risk management specialists in corporations and universities, is to “see the list as an opportunity to see the agency in a different light.”

O’Keefe who is now at Syracuse University, recalled his personal experience on the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks. He was in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office when a call came in on the hotline telling officials to turn on the TV. After the nature of the attack became clear, O’Keefe realized that such a vulnerability had been discussed months earlier “but it seemed so abstract, and didn’t seem real.”

Years later, when O-Keefe arrived in Baton Rouge, La., to become chancellor of Louisiana State University, he met with the state auditor, who warned—two months before Hurricane Katrina—that the campus needed a better plan to serve as an emergency evacuation destination, the need for which would be demonstrated in spades.

Cataloging a range of institutional failures—the demise of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College, the collapse of Kodak, and the 1994 bankruptcy of the Orange County, Calif., government—O’Keefe said leaders should use the GAO list to “change the nature of the debate internally” to focus planning to confront a “fundamental risk that could bring down the agency.”

Getting Off the List

GAO’s methods for creating the list has evolved over the past decade, said Chris Mihm, the watchdog’s managing director of strategic issues. He cited greater transparency on criteria for getting on and off, and a feature added this year “at agency request” for a star system displaying agency progress on each criterion.

The list expanded from a focus on waste, fraud and abuse to things in need of fundamental transformation, he said, noting areas such as human capital management and food safety. The list now specifies areas where congressional action is needed, as in Postal Service reform and infrastructure investment.

Getting off the list requires improving leadership, developing an action plan, having the right people, capabilities and resources, having a monitoring plan and recording demonstrable progress, Mihm said. “Nothing came off the list because they had zero risk, but because they were effectively managing the problem,” he added. For GAO evaluators, “the unit of analysis is not an item on the list but the underlying problem.”

Nancy Potok, deputy director of the Census Bureau, said the high-risk list can be valuable in making the case for funding from Congress and as a tool for enterprisewide risk management to create greater efficiencies. She described the bureau’s efforts to integrate a “portfolio management system” that prioritizes risk for agency leaders. It requires “a culture change,” in that Ph.D’s are now required to log their hours by project to help track resources.

In part because of the list, the Census Bureau has “embraced oversight,” she added, pointing to the steady presence of GAO and inspector general interviewers, along with outside help from the National Academy and private software developers.

The panel’s naysayer was Robert Hale, the former Pentagon comptroller now with Booz Allen Hamilton. The Defense Department’s risks due to wartime issues are constantly addressed without regard to GAO’s list, as are important ongoing problems such as sexual assault prevention, he said. DoD since 2009 has made progress on curbing health care costs, troop pay costs and eliminating low-priority weapons system—none of which are on the list, he noted.

 Even for the Defense items that form a large portion of the list—acquisition reform, audit readiness and financial management, “we already have extensive plans and are spending lots of money,” Hale added. “The list is important to Congress, but our goal is not to get off the list, but to cut spending and meet the warfighters’ needs.”

One area that perhaps should be added to the list, Hale said, “is the crisis in the civil service,” low morale and difficult recruiting worsened by pay freezes, harsh rhetoric from Congress and sequestration.

John Gill, chief human capital officer of the Health and Human Services Department, who’s now 14 months into the federal job after 30 years with Lockheed Martin and Rolls Royce, called the list an effective progress report on workforce planning issues that allows us to “ground ourselves in good information so we know where we’re going.” In response to the list’s critiques of HHS efficiency and effectiveness, his office is planning to launch an exchange program to give employees experience in other offices as well as exploit university crowdsourcing of ideas to help engage the Millennial generation.

Asked whether the GAO list affects morale, the panelists said it is an instrument for “celebrating success” and a way to “paint a bright line on the things that matter.”

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