Defense’s security clearance program falls off ‘high-risk’ list

GAO adds Interior’s management of oil and gas resources to biennial inventory of programs vulnerable to mismanagement.

This story has been updated

After years of sustained progress, the Defense Department's security clearance program has been removed from the Government Accountability Office's inventory of programs and offices facing significant management challenges. But, the news was not so good for the Interior Department, whose management of oil and gas resources earned it the unenviable distinction as the only new entrant on GAO's biennial high-risk list.

The 185-page report, released on Wednesday afternoon, highlights 30 troubled programs, with most being carry-overs from previous years. Six concerns, including oversight of Pentagon and NASA contracts, have made the list every time since GAO first published it 1990.

The Pentagon significantly improved the timeliness of clearance processing, which had been frequently criticized as inefficient, GAO noted. The watchdog found Defense handled 90 percent of its initial clearances in an average of 49 days. The statutory objective is 60 days. Defense also expedited its security clearance process for contractors, moving from an average of 128 days in 2008 to 63 days in fiscal 2010, the report said.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, whose Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia has held seven hearings on the issue, credited the George W. Bush and Obama administrations for the enhancements.

"The progress we made on security clearances should serve as a model for future, sustained oversight efforts on other issues," Akaka said. "This will be important for addressing management challenges and making the federal government more efficient, more effective and more responsive."

The only other issue removed from the list since GAO last updated it in 2009 was planning for the 2010 census, primarily because the count has been completed and the few remaining activities remain on track.

GAO demonstrated much less faith in Interior's ability to collect its share of billions of dollars in revenue from oil and gas produced on federal lands. The report found that, particularly in the wake of last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Interior continues to have problems hiring, training and retaining enough staff to oversee and manage oil and gas operations on federal lands and waters.

Longtime critics of Interior's former Minerals Management Service -- now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement -- said the issue should have made the list years ago.

"In 2006, the Department of the Interior's own Inspector General Earl Devaney told the oversight committee that 'short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior,' " said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "It's better late than never, but it shouldn't have taken the worst ecological disaster in history for GAO to place this program onto the high-risk list."

In recent years, GAO has made more than 50 recommendations to address weaknesses in Interior's revenue collection, human capital policies, and practices for managing oil and gas resources. While the department has begun acting on many of those recommendations, most have yet to be implemented.

"Although oil and gas resources represent one of the largest sources of revenue for the federal government, it's far from clear that Interior has been collecting all the funds to which the American people are entitled," Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said. "I am hopeful that the addition of this area to the high-risk list will encourage the department to successfully make fundamental changes to enhance its ability to carry out its important mission."

Most of the programs GAO scrutinized demonstrated some progress during the past few years despite making the list, the report said. In three areas -- strategic human capital management, Defense's infrastructure management and the government's ability to manage its real property -- progress has been sufficient for GAO to narrow the scope of its concerns.

For example, recent telework legislation has increased the flexibility of the federal workforce to perform its mission, cutting down on human capital problems. But the report said the government still needs to close existing and emerging critical skills gaps in areas such as acquisition, foreign language capability, and oil and gas management before human capital can be removed from the list.

The Defense Department's oversight of weapons systems acquisition also took a step forward due partially to a 2009 law mandating reforms and enhanced attention from Pentagon leaders, investigators found. But, the report noted Defense "must still develop an analytical approach and empower portfolio managers to better prioritize capability needs while doing a better job of allocating resources."

Agencies also have made advancements in the oversight of food safety, recovering improper payments in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, the enforcement of tax laws, and interagency contracting, the report said.

Since 1990, GAO has designated more than 50 areas of government performance and management as high risk; the watchdog has taken one-third of those areas off the list, due to improved performance.