Comptroller General Gene Dodaro testifies before Congress in 2009.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro testifies before Congress in 2009. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP file photo

GAO Chief Dismisses 'Legend' that Agencies Can’t Escape High-Risk List

Dodaro calls Trump reorganization effort “a perfect opportunity” to use the biennial tool.

The Government Accountability Office’s oft-dreaded high-risk list “has become one of the longest-running good-government-supporting efforts in our history,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said on Wednesday during a discussion praising the biennial report card on agencies’ problematic programs and challenges.

In recent years, Congress has enacted 12 laws built around the list, in such areas as environmental risk disclosure and disposal of excess federal properties, Dodaro told a forum organized by the National Academy of Public Administration. Some 77 percent of the GAO’s list recommendations have been implemented since the early 1990s, leaving 4,000-5,000 still open, he said. “I’m committed to this effort,” and when agency heads or deputies meet with Office of Management and Budget leaders to discuss strategies for getting off the list, “I personally would attend,” Dodaro added.

He called the Trump administration’s summer-long effort to gather agency ideas for reorganizing to boost efficiency “a perfect” opportunity to deploy the tool that, he noted, encourages “sustained attention across administrations and across congresses.”

After NAPA President and CEO Teresa Gerton lightheartedly compared the high-risk list to the Eagles’ song “Hotel California,” where “you can check out but you can never leave,” Dodaro called that never-escape notion “an urban legend.” Twenty programs have been removed over the years, including this February’s exit of the intelligence community’s terrorism information sharing efforts, he noted. “But just because you’re off the list doesn’t mean you’re out of sight.“

The original list of 14 areas grew out of congressional concerns about 1980s financial scandals that erupted with little warning, Dodaro noted. It focused on waste, fraud and abuse. Later, GAO added themes “in need of broad-based transformation, to prepare the government for future responsibilities” in national security, economics or health care in areas with an impact of over $1 billion. His example was enhancing the Food and Drug Administration’s capacity to protect consumers against faulty medical product ingredients from manufacturers located across a global marketplace.

In 2000, GAO worked with the executive branch to spell out the best criteria for a promising remedy to a faulty program—committed leadership, resource capability, an action plan, a monitoring effort and demonstrable progress. Then in 2015, his team introduced a scorecard that would provide specific ratings for aspects within agency programs as to whether they were fully met, partially met or not met. (In the latest report this February, 23 of the 32 programs on the list had shown progress.)

Dodaro also expressed high hopes for improvements using the 2016 Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act, which formalizes job descriptions for program managers using private-sector techniques. Because he’s only in the ninth year of his 15-year appointment running GAO, Dodaro added, he has an advantage of taking the long view. “I take that continuity very seriously for things that are done well as well as those not done so well.”

Asked whether the slow pace of Trump administration efforts to fill agency vacancies had hindered GAO’s work in gathering agency information, Dodaro said: “Not that we’ve noticed. We have very effective working relations with agencies through our liaisons who’ve been working with us over time. But it’s something to keep an eye on.”

Trump’s hiring freeze introduced soon after his swearing in is the subject of a report expected later this year, Dodaro said, noting that human capital planning remains on the list. Past reports have shown a freeze “is not an effective tool, that it’s better to manage with strategic workforce planning.”

One of the troubled programs that was a “charter member” on the high-risk list, and that has been improved by that status is the Defense Department’s supply chain management. Problems with inaccurate and costly inventories surfaced during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, and “Congress called us out,” said panelist Kristen French, principal deputy assistant Defense secretary for logistics and material readiness.

“For two decades, we didn’t do much, but the big development” came in 2010 when Congress required action in the National Defense Authorization Act, she said. “In the past, we’d looked at GAO as the enemy who wasn’t worth talking to. We decided it was time to talk to them.”

The basic principles of reform sound easy, she said—“don’t buy what is not needed and don’t keep what you’re not using.” But difficulties come because some weapon systems are 40 to 70 years old, and different Pentagon components have differing definitions and metrics.

Eventually, the team—which she began leading in 2016—came up with a Comprehensive Inventory Management Improvement Plan. It had 83 milestones, all eventually completed by working with the Defense Logistics Agency, the General Services Administration and the service commands coordinated via quarterly meetings of a supply chain executive steering committee. The approach has trimmed some $1 billion in excess inventory out of $145 billion in logistics spending. The trick is to “be collaborative, and open and honest about problems,” French said.

GAO’s list was also a boost to internal reforms at the Veterans Affairs Department’s efforts to address its hospital patient wait time “access crisis” scandal that erupted in 2014, noted Dr. Carolyn Clancy, deputy undersecretary of health for organizational excellence. “GAO was helpful even when we felt it’s too helpful,” she said. “We used it as an opportunity to engage employees across the organization. What really motivated people is that these underlying challenges get to the VA mission,” she added. “We are shifting from a reactive mode to trying to get ahead of the curve and be more proactive.”

Progress also can be seen in the Office of Personnel Management’s efforts to improve human capital management programs that were on the list from 2001-2011. “Everyone thinks human capital strategy is someone else’s responsibility,” said Veronica Villalobos, OPM’s principal deputy associate director for employee services. But the quest to fill skills gaps in such areas as cybersecurity, economics or auditing to meet agencies’ future needs is the responsibility of all, from managers to line supervisors to workers, she said.

The governmentwide effort of recent years, for which OPM sought data in mission-critical occupations and root-cause analysis, was hindered by sequestration and Congress’ resort to continuing resolutions, Villalobos added, but eventually OPM exceeded its hiring goal of 20 percent. “Interest waned, and it was difficult to continue,” she said. But “we’re starting to see glimpses across the government” of progress in strategic hiring concepts that weren’t recognized a few years ago.