GAO nudging agencies to take care of priority recommendations

In the last couple of weeks, GAO has reissued reminders on open recommendations. It's a long list.

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Priority recommendations — these are actions the Government Accountability Office advises agencies to maintain program and financial integrity and sustainability. In the last couple of weeks, GAO has reissued reminders on open recommendations. It’s a long list. For some highlights, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to GAO’s Chief Operating Officer Kate Siggerud.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin:  Ms. Siggerud, good to have you on.

Kate Siggerud: Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: Now, we noticed this list coming out one by one of the lists of open recommendations that date back in some cases several years to agencies. You’re just rattling their cages to say, “Hey, we haven’t forgotten,” is that something you do periodically?

Kate Siggerud: Tom, we’ve been sending these priority recommendations every year starting in 2015. So this is our sixth year of sending these letters to the heads of agencies to remind them of those recommendations we view as the highest priority. For the last two years in 2019 and now in 2020, we have made these public and posted them on our website. Prior to that we sent them to the agencies and then sent them to the congressional committees that had oversight over the agencies. Our overall goal here is to try to bring to senior leadership of major federal agencies those recommendations that we think can save the most money, address issues on our high risk list or significantly improve government operations. They represent about 500 out of about 5,000 open recommendations, so about 10%. So we’ve really slimmed down the number of recommendations that we think that senior leadership should specifically pay attention to.

Tom Temin: Got it and I’d like to run through some of the agencies as reminders here and why don’t we start with the Homeland Security Department? Interesting – alien children is still on that list. That’s kind of fallen off the headlines lately, because of all the other headlines but still an issue, isn’t it?

Kate Siggerud: Yes, we have a couple of areas that we wanted to bring to DHS’ attention this time around. One of them was an agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services with regard to how these unaccompanied children are handled in these shelters run by the Health and Human Services Department. There were several documents developed between the two departments in 2018. However, we reported earlier this year that they have not fully implemented the agreements between the departments. So we think that there are some significant information sharing gaps that remain between and threaten the overall accuracy of how these children are referred and handled within the placement process.

Tom Temin: And across DHS is the Coast Guard and the infrastructure backlog. Sounds arcane, but it sounds like something that really gets to the ability of the Coast Guard to keep operating efficiently.

Kate Siggerud: Well, the Coast Guard has a very, very significant infrastructure that’s developed over decades of work. Our view is that there are actions that the Coast Guard could take, analysis it could undertake that would allow it to better target what maintenance it has to do, as well as, you cite, on the overall number of Coast Guard stations and other offices and facilities they have that are still needed to work efficiently.

Tom Temin: And kind of a cross-DHS issue is the cyber risk management strategy. Since the time I think this recommendation first came out, there’s been some reorganization of DHS that resulted in a – more than just a renamed agency or reorganized piece, the CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Tell us a little bit about the cyber risk one.

Kate Siggerud: Sure. So we continue to oversee CISA and I have a forthcoming report which I can’t give a lot of details on today. But we think that the overall organization was necessary and important. I should mention that we have cybersecurity risk on our overall high risk list, which as you know, Tom, we issue at the beginning of every new Congress. One of the things that I should mention is that in every one of the 28 of these recommendation letters that we are sending to federal agencies, we have highlighted IT issues as a pervasive challenge across the government. Both with regard to agencies handling the cybersecurity of their own systems, as well as efficiency and acquiring IT systems. So we think it’s something that every agency needs to take care of. And of course, DHS, with its new agency has a lead role in that overall function across the government.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Kate Siggerud, she’s chief operating officer of the Government Accountability Office. And let’s move to the State Department. One of the top recommendations there had to do with the future costs of their overseas construction, which is, I guess, about half or two-thirds through a long term reconstruction effort.

Kate Siggerud: Yes, well, the embassy construction effort is an issue we followed for a long time. So we have a long list of past recommendations in this area. You know, following the attacks on the embassies in Africa, the State Department took on an overall improvement of a security posture across the entire world, and that, of course, meant reinforcing or in some cases relocating and building new embassy and other State Department facilities in these countries. So this is a very costly effort. It’s of course done in foreign countries under difficult circumstances. And we’ve made a number of recommendations to the State Department in that regard.

Tom Temin: And was I right, they’re about two thirds of the way through all of that construction effort? Because that was a, I think a 20-, 25-year effort.

Kate Siggerud: Yes, I believe it’s about halfway through that effort. And of course, the priorities have been in certain areas of highest risk but overall, in nearly every installation at the State Department has some improvements need to be done.

Tom Temin: Alright, let’s move to the Office of Management and Budget. Like Homeland Security, it has some functions or in this case, most of the functions really have to do with the entire government. And one of your I guess they’ve got somewhere like three dozen To open recommendations, few of which are priorities and you’ve fulfilled some and you’ve added some. So we have a net result of 35. What are the top ones there?

Kate Siggerud: I think identified three different areas where we think OMB should be paying particular attention. The first is in the area of improper payments. These are payments that were made to the wrong entity or person or in the wrong amounts. They totaled $175 billion in 2019 alone. OMB has a lead role with regard to setting policy with regard to how other agencies should approach this problem and try to prevent it or to take back those funds that have been paid improperly. So OMB did act on two of our priority recommendations from previous years, in particular, by developing guidance together with the inspectors general across the government. This is very important guidance that explained to agencies how they should determine what their improper payment levels are, and then how to find out acting on that problem. But we believe that OMB’s attention to several additional recommendations we made can help to make sure that that guidance and those corrective actions are effectively implemented. I might also mention spending transparency. The DATA Act of 2014 requires agencies to provide additional data on about $4 trillion in annual spending. I mention this one today in particular, because last month, OMB announced that agencies and recipients of any of the CARES Act spending, in other words, the spending that the federal government is doing to respond to the pandemic, that this DATA Act framework will be the framework through which monthly reporting requirements associated with that act are undertaken. So we have recommendations with regard to the DATA Act and spending transparency to improve the overall quality of the data and the public’s understanding of how federal funds are to be spent.

Tom Temin: And you also mentioned disaster relief spending controls and I guess, in some sense, that’s what the stimulus bill, the CARES Act is all about. So yeah, that up with improper payments – there’s kind of a theme here.

Kate Siggerud: Yeah, so improper payments and disaster controls are highly related to each other. The challenge with spending during disasters, such as we’re facing now or in natural disasters, such as hurricanes is the need to get money to affected communities quickly, which means that the ability to do some of the usual checks around eligibility and internal controls are more difficult. So we think that focusing on internal controls related to disaster spending is very important for OMB and for every federal agency that’s involved in providing these important funds quickly to affected communities.

Tom Temin: All right, let’s move on to the IRS because that’s really part of Treasury Department. But in effect, it’s a department unto itself and the way it’s treated by Congress and the way people think about it. And there’s some new recommendations, with respect to one that really caught my eye was transporting receipts by staff from wherever a processing center to a bank. This still happens in the 21st century?

Kate Siggerud: Well, some of the IRS’ work is still done on paper. There are a fair number of taxpayers, both individuals and businesses that continue to use the mail and paper in order to file their tax returns. And of course, there was a fair amount of correspondence that goes back and forth between IRS and taxpayers to resolve any errors or questions that the IRS has. So as much as the IRS would very much like for all of its tax business to be done online, yes, there is a fair amount of paper activity that still occurs.

Tom Temin: And it sounds like the issue there is if there’s not enough staff to transport materials to the bank, then supervisors who are overseeing that material could end up doing so. And that creates the possible conflict of interest?

Kate Siggerud: Yes, and and probably also isn’t very efficient if you think about it. So it is a conflict of interest. Related to that, I will say that we have for years recommended to the IRS that they take a number of efforts to improve their, what we call strategic human capital management. In other words, thinking about what the size of the workforce is that is needed, what kind of workforce we need, and making sure that it’s a flexible workforce thinking about how the IRS will be operating now and in the future. So we’ve got a number of recommendations about identifying skill gaps and developing hiring plans in that regard, which would probably also help with the topic that you just mentioned.

Tom Temin: And of course, you mentioned earlier that information technology is an issue for every agency, but maybe IRS is one that stands out there, isn’t it?

Kate Siggerud: Absolutely. We’ve mentioned very significant interest in getting as much tax business done online as possible. But of course, that means you need to have an online presence that can handle the volume of material that comes into the IRS and then compute all of the information that needs to be computed to determine whether the taxes have been paid and paid correctly. IRS has had a long-standing effort to improve its overall IT posture, but needs to do better in that regard.

Tom Temin: Let’s move to the Defense Department where there are something like north of 1,000 recommendations outstanding.

Kate Siggerud: There are.

Tom Temin: Sixty-four of them, I believe, are priority, which is enough for probably the whole government. And you’ve broken them down into categories. Just run through us what you see as really the most critical ones for DoD.

Kate Siggerud: Thank you, Tom. I’ll mention a couple this morning. And I’ll start with acquiring weapon systems and managing those contracts. So DoD has a portfolio of what are considered to be major defense acquisitions – 82 different major defense programs, and that they have an estimated cost of $1.7 trillion. Most of these programs we’ve found over many years and this is why we have so many recommendations in this area. Most of them proceed without key knowledge that’s essential to good acquisition outcomes. For example, doing adequate testing before proceeding with developments in actual buy of the weapon system, not doing so increases the risk of cost growth and schedule delays, as well as most importantly, performance that doesn’t comport with the original expectations for the system. So, the other thing we’re concerned about in this area is that DoD has a number of efforts underway to develop weapon systems more rapidly to meet the warfighter needs. This means streamlining the acquisition processes, and while that sounds attractive, it’s important that good contracting oversight continues even under that posture. And so we’re continuing to monitor these streamlining efforts. Another very important area for DoD is rebuilding its readiness. And it is listed as the DoD’s highest priority and we certainly agree with that. So DoD is transitioning from a decade of counterterrorism operations to focusing more on other types of military threats from other nations. It needs to rebuild this capabilities. And it needs to feel sufficient and ready forces to be able to have a decisive advantage in any likely conflict. We’re focusing particularly on the Navy in our letter this year, we have six recommendations related to the acute readiness challenges in the Navy. That was of course highlighted by fatal collisions that happened in 2017. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of maintaining ships, training the staff, and developing shipyard optimization, among other issues.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Kate Siggerud, the chief operating officer of the Government Accountability Office. And the business processes and financial management of DoD, those are perennials also, in a sense, underpin everything else they do.

Kate Siggerud: Yes, this is very important and we also had a number of recommendations in this area in the letter to the Department of Defense. So the department has six, what we call business related-areas on our high risk list. That’s the most of any federal agencies. This includes things like contracting, financial management, defense infrastructure, and its IT business systems. So DoD’s effectiveness at meeting those missions that I just talked about, is directly related to its ability to have strong business and support operations. We’ve reported for years that weaknesses have led to waste and ineffective performance. And we have a number of recommendations related to strengthening the business reform efforts to include that DoD appropriately fund these initiatives and assess their effectiveness as it implements any reforms to them.

Tom Temin: By the way, these recommendations for all of these agencies, these do relate to the GAO’s annual high risk list or biannual high risk list, too, don’t they?

Kate Siggerud: They do. We make sure that in all of the letters that we send to agencies that we note any high risk area that’s directly connected to that agency. So I just mentioned the six business reform topics for DoD, we call that out in the letter. But being on the high risk list is one of the criteria we use for choosing which recommendations to highlight. I mentioned earlier that we had identified a number of IT issues across all the agencies that we reviewed. There are two other high risk issues that we talked about fairly frequently in these letters. One is strategic human capital management – in other words, the need for agencies to identify skill gaps and have appropriate succession planning and hiring plans. And the second is the managing of their own real property. So the facilities and the property that they own and to make sure that that is handled efficiently and disposed of when no longer necessary.

Tom Temin: All right, in the time we have left I just want to do a quick lightning round of a couple of different agencies because I know you had recommendations across the board: Small Business Administration – under a lot of stress right now topically because of the CARES Act.

Kate Siggerud: Yes, so we are doing a lot of work at SBA. In fact, we have to report on the CARES Act on June 25. We’re required in that law to report within 90 days of the passage of the CARES Act. And I expect that our work at SBA will be a significant part of that. So I might mention in that regard, my priority recommendations that are related to SBA disaster response. SBA is regularly called into provide loans and other assistance when a disaster occurs. We think that there are a number of action plans and standard templates that if SBA implemented them would help them to work more quickly.

Tom Temin: All right, and let’s go quickly to Social Security Administration.

Kate Siggerud: So at Social Security, we focus part of our letter on the theme of reducing overpayment of benefits, for example, finding better ways to prevent people receiving benefits for disability from concurrently receiving federal workers compensation.

Tom Temin: And just a quick one on that one, on SSA, they get dinged every year, I guess because it’s comical sounding of sending benefits to those that are deceased. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s actually a tiny amount of what they do send out, isn’t it?

Kate Siggerud: Yes, it is. But they do maintain overall list with a terrible name of the Death Master File and continue to work on their own processes and with other agencies to make sure that benefits are not going to people that are deceased.

Tom Temin: Okay, and the last one – NASA.

Kate Siggerud: NASA. Okay, well, the International Space Station has been in the news recently, I should say, in part because the first crewed test flight from the United States by SpaceX is slated for later this month. As you know, the United States has relied on Russia for continued access to the space station. NASA’s access could end in October 2020, if it is not able to either finalize the purchase of an additional site from Russia, or begin our own regular flight crews to station from here in the United States. NASA has not had a contingency plan in place, in case the ongoing flight tests do not go as planned and we think they should.

Tom Temin: Sounds like a lot. Any reaction yet, from any of the agency heads that these have gone out to so far?

Kate Siggerud: We typically get letters back from about half of them, thanking us for the letter and outlining what they plan to do in response. Something I would note is that right at the beginning of January 2019, the president signed a new bill, passed the end of December of 2018. It’s called the GAO IG Act. What that did was it required federal agencies to identify any open GAOIG recommendations in their budget submissions and say what they are doing to respond to them. We think this will also be a great tool for understanding how agencies are responding to our recommendations. And Tom, let me go back and get the name of that bill right. It’s the Good Accounting Obligation In Government Act or the GAOIG Act, and this year in 2020 we are seeing the first time that agencies are providing that information.

Tom Temin: Kate Siggerud is chief operating officer of the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much.

Kate Siggerud: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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