GAO’s high risk list receives more recognition

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Few lists get as much attention as the list of high risk federal programs published by the Government Accountability Office every two years. For several cycles the high risk list has been headed by my next guest. For his work he’s also a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. We welcomed back a regular Federal Drive with Tom Temin guest, and now awardee, the GAO’s managing director for strategic issues, Chris Mihm.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Chris, good to have you on in this new context.

Chris Mihm: Well, thank you, Tom. And it’s always a pleasure to be back with you.

Tom Temin: And the thing I’ve always found remarkable about you and also some of your colleagues at GAO is even though that you are looking constantly and reporting on, year after year, some really tough situations in the government. You never seem to lose your optimism that it’s going to be okay and that ultimately the people running these programs, even the high risk ones, are well intentioned and want the best.

Chris Mihm: Oh, absolutely. In fact, our operating assumption under the high risk list and certainly did you know throughout my career, the work that I’ve done, is that very smart, very hard working federal employees are trying to address some very complex issues on behalf of the country. What my job is is to go in and do independent reviews and help them identify some gaps perhaps in what they’re doing and capacity or performance, and how those gaps can be addressed. And so we assume good faith on the part of the people that we’re working with in the executive branch, and I have not been disappointed throughout my career in seeing that.

Tom Temin: And do you also find often that just small amounts of money applied in the right way or small groups of people can have enormous leverage? Because sometimes it seems like the operational end of big programs that are dispersing big dollars, but the operation is sort of nickeled and dimed by Congress or whatever, and therefore they may lose billions by saving hundreds of thousands.

Chris Mihm: Two things on that, first is that you’re you’re absolutely right. There needs to be a risk based approach to how we think about the implementation of programs — and we can go too far in putting together layer after layer after layer of compliance requirements and sitting to the extent that you end up squeezing out the opportunity to actually achieve big things. So that doesn’t mean that any of us want waste or fraud or abuse, but it just needs to be a risk based approach to that. We in GAO have issued a fraud risk framework that tries to help agencies think exactly along those lines. The second thing though is that I would note is that in many of the areas that we’ve identified, certainly with the high risk list for example, is that there are areas that need additional investment, but an awful lot of that is just being smarter with the investment that we have. And this is of course an awful lot of the movement that we see today with evidence based policy. It’s using data, using evidence to very specifically target problems, figuring out then what’s the right investments that we ought to make, and then moving money that’s already in the system to those opportunities that we have to have a bigger impact. That’s an awful lot of what we see with the high risk and other program areas.

Tom Temin: Sure. And sometimes it’s the content Congress itself that is really the issue. I’m thinking of one example of the payments under the individual payment plan from the CARES Act. And as it’s been famously chewed over now for weeks, the IRS sent a million checks to people that were deceased or in prison. And if you look at the GAO report on that, it says well, you Congress need to give them access to the most recent vital statistics records from Social Security, which by statute they don’t have access to at this moment. And even though the dollars in the context weren’t all that huge, it’s one of those stories that gets out and everybody laughs about or they get grilled on. But often you have to kind of tell your bosses on the Hill, hey you guys need to do this to help the program. But yet somehow you managed to do it without pissing them off too much.

Chris Mihm: Yeah, I work for the Congress and so I am an institutionalist from the standpoint of thinking about Congress and its priorities. We’ve been very fortunate and particularly I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career that where we have identified opportunities for Congress to act to have statutory fixes to problems, they’ve shown great willingness to do that. In fact, an awful lot of the management infrastructure that we have within agencies now, everything from the going back to 1990, the CFO Act, the various IT legislation, Government Performance and Results Act in 93, and then GPRA Modernization Act and the Evidence Act, all of those have anchors in legislation. So I think Congress has very often shown a willingness to act where the evidence and the data are there, and people are able to make a persuasive case. But just one thing on the economic impact payment that you mentioned, there were two parts of the story that we told in our most recent CARES Act report. Certainly a lot of that and the one that got all the press was the the payments to deceased individuals. And in fact, in many cases, if you got a paper check and even noted on the check that the individual was deceased. But there was another part of that story that we told you the report that didn’t get as much press that is that there are millions of people that should be getting these payments that have not yet received them. And largely, these are very poor people that are unbanked, as the language goes in the system. IRS and Treasury are seeking out and seeking to these people. But these are the people that presumably most needed the payments. And so that’s the other half, not just the deceased, but those that are due the payments that have not yet received them.

Tom Temin: And going back to the list that you’ve compiled over the years and the programs you’ve looked at, what in your opinion, makes an effective federal executive or a federal program manager on the whole such that they have the skill necessary to move a program along in a positive way?

Chris Mihm: Well, there’s a number of things that are that are needed here. I mean, this is this is one of those areas in which we say leadership really does matter. And I know for all kind of federal management issues and operational issues, that’s kind of the default, you always start out well top leadership matters, and it does. In particular it does here, and in fact, when we look at what it takes to get off the high risk list, and we have published criteria on that we want to be transparent with agencies, we look at the extent to which top leadership has put in place the capacity and the resources that their teams need in order to their teams need in order to address the issues. We look atdo they have an action plan in place? Is there effective monitoring that’s going on and are we beginning to see demonstrable results? So an awful lot of that what’s needed from top leadership is, again, making sure that there’s the capacity in place, making sure that there’s a plan in place to get off the list and with actionable steps and milestones, holding people accountable for that, finding out what’s working and then making adjustments that if it’s not working. These are all things that top leadership does, and when they do it, it works. There’s an old saw out there about how the high risk list, dating myself here’s a little bit like the Hotel California, you can check out but you can never leave. That’s not the case. Since 2004, 13 areas have come off the high risk list. The last time in 2019, we took off DoD supply chain management, which had been one of the original items on the high risk list back in the 1990s. Progress can be made, sometimes it takes quite a long time. But with top leadership attention, with top leadership focus, you do get off the high risk list.

Tom Temin: And do you ever feel that the political appointees, and we’re not talking about any particular administration now, but in general political appointees sometimes miss an opportunity to come in and make a difference before they leave, which is typically a pretty short period?

Chris Mihm: Oh, absolutely. And in fact, as you said, this isn’t to any particular administration. One of the things that Clay Johnson when he was the deputy director for management over at OMB, started in the George W. Bush administration, was tripartite meetings between OMB, GAO and the deputy or even agency head that was responsible for each of the individual hybrid high risk needs. And these took place over a period of several each quarter. Those were continued into the Obama administration. Sadly, we had a couple early in this administration but haven’t had any recently. That’s the type of high level attention that you really have. When you have the senior leadership at OMB, the Comptroller General of the United States personally, Gene Dodaro personally participated in all of those meetings. And when you have the most senior people within the agencies all working the same set of information, talking together about where are we? What’s our path forward? What is it going to take to make progress on those high risk areas? That’s where you begin to see demonstrable progress.

Tom Temin: And you must be gratified that as a Sammies finalist at this point, suddenly what you have been doing as the Grim Reaper all these years is getting some positive kudos here.

Chris Mihm: Well, thank you for the Grim Reaper. Yeah, I take that as an auditor as a badge of honor. No, we’re quite pleased on this. I’m pleased and honored that I get to represent the work of so many of my colleagues across GAO. This is very genuinely a whole of GAO effort, the high risk list. As I mentioned, the 13 areas that have come off. Even other areas that haven’t come off, real progress has been made in terms of hundreds if not thousands of operational and programmatic improvements. And then half a trillion dollars in financial benefits to the American people over the last 14 years. That’s a big deal and something that I think my colleagues from from GAO can be justly proud of.

Tom Temin: Chris Mihm is managing director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, and a finalist in this year’s Service to America metals Program. Thanks so much.

Chris Mihm: It’s my great honor. Thank you sir.

Read more about Chris and GAO’s work here. 

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