GAO tells agencies it’s now or never to fix longstanding problems

Via direct letters to department secretaries and agency heads, the Government Accountability Office is telling federal agency leaders it’s time to get serious about addressing thousands of lingering recommendations it’s made to improve their operations over the past several years.

Time is of the essence: With just 13 months to go until leadership positions across the executive branch change hands, GAO sees this as a now-or-never chance for the suggestions it’s proffered and agencies already have agreed to during the eight years of the Obama administration to either translate themselves into firm policy or die a slow death during the transition between administrations.

Gene Dodaro, the comptroller general, said he has sent letters to the heads of all 24 CFO Act agencies detailing the total number of un-implemented GAO recommendations in each of their agencies along with a ranked list of what he views as the most critical ones that will demand their personal attention between now and January 2017.

Government Accountability Office Acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on "Tracking the Money: Preventing Waste, Fraud and Abuse of Recovery Act Funding" on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 8, 2009, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Government Accountability Office Comptroller General Gene Dodaro. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“I’ve seen this happen over the years, and it doesn’t matter what administration it is: there’s always a lull in the activities of the individual departments and agencies while they wait to find out what the new administration’s priorities are,” Dodaro said. “And if the agency doesn’t really believe in our recommendations as much as they’ve claimed they do, it’s also an opportunity to slow things down. There’s always a lot of lost momentum during the changeover.”

Dodaro spoke Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee,  which highlighted the total number of unaddressed GAO recommendations across government. There are 4,605 in the CFO Act agencies alone and about 1,000 more that require action by the Office of Management and Budget or by smaller agencies.

As the government’s largest department by far, the Defense Department is responsible for 1,004 of those.

Dodaro said he sent a prioritized listing of open recommendations to Defense Secretary Ash Carter in August, but he has yet to receive a meaningful response.

“DoD has about half of the government’s discretionary spending and so they get a lot of our attention, but they also have one of the lower response rates in terms of implementing our recommendations. It’s on the order of 60 percent instead of the 80 percent rate we see in the broader government,” Dodaro said. “Part of the issue is that the problems we identify require multiple components of the Defense Department to work together. Many of our recommendations on overlap, duplication and fragmentation have to do with components of DoD itself rather than across government. It’s a very large operation.”

The Pentagon’s own inspector general has observed similar issues; in a report due for release Friday, the IG notes that its oldest pending recommendation dates back to 2006.

After DoD, the agencies with the next largest number of open recommendations are the departments of Treasury, Homeland Security, Transportation and Health and Human Services, each of which have approximately 400 issues that have not been addressed to GAO’s satisfaction.

The Veterans Affairs Department — the government’s second largest in terms of overall spending — fared better, with 210 open recommendations, but Dodaro still expressed significant concern about VA.

Its health care system made its first appearance on GAO’s  biennial “high risk” list in February because of persistent problems with veterans’ access to health care despite several recent measures to increase its funding, and Dodaro said the department has shown little improvement since then.

“There has not been significant progress and I’m very disappointed that we have not seen a decent corrective action plan from VA,” said Dodaro, who said he planned to meet on Friday with VA Secretary Robert McDonald to discuss the patient care issues. “They need an integrated plan to address our concerns and those expressed by the VA inspector general and by others. I’ve got some ideas on how they could do that, but I’m concerned.”

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But GAO is only one component of the government watchdog apparatus that reports its findings to Congress.

Individual agencies’ inspectors general also have a number of open recommendations, but no one is quite sure what that number is.

Members of Congress said Thursday that they’d like to see a single cross-agency database of unaddressed issues arising from previous IG reports, akin to the one GAO maintains for its own recommendations.

Such a system could let congressional overseers not only keep tabs on agencies’ general responsiveness to watchdog oversight, but also let them mine IG data for consistent management problems that pop up in multiple agencies and which could be addressed via targeted legislation.

The logical organization to create such a database would be the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), which Congress created in 2008 to serve as a central clearinghouse for ideas and information among agency IGs. But no one has ever bothered to fund CIGIE via a direct appropriation. Its $6 million in annual resources comes mostly via a pass-the-hat approach, so it would be hard-pressed to take on the project.

“We’ve asked to be included in the President’s budget for each of the last four years, and so far we haven’t been,” said Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department IG who serves as CIGIE’s current chairman. “We’ve talked about a request of about $4 million. It takes a fair amount of staff to do that kind of work and IT infrastructure; We don’t think we even have the IT capacity to do something like that at this point.”

And absent consistent funding, CIGIE doesn’t have the staff or institutional memory to distill all of its member IG’s findings into cross-cutting recommendations that could prove useful to members of Congress who are looking for patterns across agencies, whether those are duplicative grants, common management problems or inefficiencies that plague multiple agencies.

Horowitz said those issues are discussed in regular CIGIE committee meetings, some of which have generated multiagency IG reviews on issues such as cloud computing and a forthcoming project on cybersecurity.

“We could be doing more in this regard,” he said, “But we have about 20 total staff for CIGIE, and many of them are temporary detailees from various agencies because we don’t know year-to- year what the pass-through funding is going to be, which has been largely the mechanism we’ve had over the last several years. We can’t run an organization and do some of the things that make complete sense to do when we don’t know how much money we’re getting.”

For GAO’s part, Dodaro said his office plans to do all it can to prod the next administration to pay attention to the problems it’s tried to raise for the current one, including by building a website that lists each agency’s most important challenges.

“GAO has a responsibility to be a source of information for incoming administrations under the Presidential Transition Act,” he said. “We did this in 2008, raising all the key issues by department and agency on a crosscutting basis, priority recommendations for the incoming administration to use. That site was made available to the Congress and the public all at the same time. We did that two days after there was a president-elect determination, and we’re positioning ourselves to the same thing next time around.”

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