Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., organized the event to counter negative stories in the media.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., organized the event to counter negative stories in the media. Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

How Some Agencies Are Escaping GAO's High-Risk List

Sen. Carper holds unofficial “roundtable” to showcase efforts at FDA, DHS, Defense and NASA.

Countering what he sees as news media preoccupation with government screw-ups, a Senate Democrat on Thursday convened an unofficial “roundtable” to showcase four agencies that have made progress toward moving off the Government Accountability Office’s “high-risk” list.  

Several agencies have made strides toward "tackling their challenges and meeting some of the criteria GAO uses in determining when progress has been made or when something should be removed from the list,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told the informal meeting. “The High-Risk List is about solving problems, and the stories we heard today confirm that the challenges agencies struggle with can be overcome.”

Since the biannual list was launched in 1990, only 23 programs have improved efficiency and effectiveness to move off the roster of infamy that today contains 32 agency programs vulnerable to management problems, said GAO strategic management analyst Chris Mihm.

Representatives from NASA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Homeland Security Department and the Defense Department presented specifics on how they cooperate with GAO to achieve progress, while a political scientist presented a paper showing how the High-Risk List itself points toward solutions that can be applied across government.

Of the admittedly few people who take interest in such GAO reports, said Don Kettl, professor and former dean at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, “most look at a narrow slice. But what if you look at the broad 32 and the 23 that got off? They begin to speak to us.” The result is “a relatively small set of problems to define, and then a small set of solutions to reduce waste, fraud and abuse, give the taxpayer value and improve citizen trust.”

Kettl’s new report on managing risk for the IBM Center for the Business of Government highlights three key elements on the GAO list: identifying root causes of problems that land programs on the list; developing root solutions to escape the list; and mapping future risk. Solutions lie in “reaching across organizational stovepipes, good performance measures,  and [identifying] information systems we need to shake out of the system from the information age dark ages,“ he said, citing continued use of “software only people in nursing homes know how to write.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., the only other senator in attendance until Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., joined toward the end, said progress won’t be sufficient until the Office of Management and Budget makes strides on its mandatory task of compiling an inventory of all agency programs, addressed in Lankford’s anti-waste bill called the Taxpayers Right to Know Act. He also stressed that too many agencies seek to innovate without knowing when other similar work is already being done.

The Homeland Security Department is one of only two agencies to have met at least three of GAO’s five requirements for getting off the list: leadership commitment, capacity, an action plan, monitoring results and sustainable progress in addressing the high-risk area. Michelle Benecke, DHS’ executive director for management integration, said her team meets regularly with GAO staff and that “GAO criteria are directly aligned with DHS management strategies” under the large department’s “Unity of Effort” umbrella.

Jeff Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, told how he vowed to his staff in 2009 that “We’re getting off the high-risk list,” and asked GAO, “What’ll it take?” FDA took seriously GAO’s recommendations that it speed up its long-term, labor-intensive program to update its classification of medical devices. At times, Shuren added, the agency felt “GAO didn’t go far enough.” In response to Lankford, he said the improvements did not allow reductions in staff—“we have more things to do than people to do them.”

Andrew Hunter, deputy chief financial officer for strategy, budget and performance at NASA, noted that his agency was on GAO’s original 1990 list, back when “oversight did not have the same rigor as today.” The space agency has made progress reducing risk of overspending through monthly monitoring of metrics, but probably won’t get off the list until after the 2018 launches of the James Webb telescope and the Orion spacecraft, he said. “NASA’s actions are inherently high-risk, and the vast majority of NASA acquisitions are one-of-a-kind projects.”

Jan Mulligan, the Pentagon’s logistics management specialist for supply chain integration, said her team “has a close relationship with GAO” in helping improve inventory management and forecasting for her 5 million inventory parts valued at $93 billion. GAO has helped the department save $18 billion since 2012, she said. “We’re very good at predicting spare parts needs when there is high demand, but when there is low demand, we need to focus on improving.”

GAO’s Mihm, who in 2015 began assigning agencies grades on movement off the list, stressed that most “of these steps are not from GAO but from the agencies. The goal is not getting off the list but addressing effective government.”

The day of the roundtable, GAO released its latest report on agency performance in implementing the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.  “Criteria for removal from the High Risk List generally align with GPRAMA requirements for addressing major management challenges,” it noted. The report found that 22 of 24 agencies were not being fully transparent in reporting complete performance information for each of their major management challenges. 

“This may be in part because OMB's guidance is unclear,” GAO said. “Agencies need to take further actions to effectively meet GPRAMA ’s requirements to include major management challenges in their [agency performance plans] and then to develop performance information (performance goals, performance measures, planned actions, milestones and an agency official responsible) for each challenge.”

Failure to do so “limits the ability of decision makers, including Congress and other stakeholders, to take action on critical issues that can affect an agency’s ability to deliver results,” the report said.