Agencies regressing on some key high-risk challenges, GAO says

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

By now you’ve heard, the Government Accountability Office has released its biennial list of high-risk federal programs. It’s a reminder to both the executive branch and Congress that some expensive programs with high impact on public life need attention. With some of what goes into establishing the list, the head of the GAO, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro,...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

By now you’ve heard, the Government Accountability Office has released its biennial list of high-risk federal programs. It’s a reminder to both the executive branch and Congress that some expensive programs with high impact on public life need attention. With some of what goes into establishing the list, the head of the GAO, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Dodaro, always good to have you on. Thanks for joining me.

Gene Dodaro: It’s always a pleasure Tom.

Tom Temin: Let’s review if we can first the whole methodology by which a program gets on that high risk list, because very often we mostly focus on what the problem is. But you’ve got a pretty rigorous methodology there, don’t you at GAO to make sure that people belong on the list that are on there?

Gene Dodaro: Yes, absolutely. It’s well documented criteria that we developed many years ago and vetted with the executive branch at the time. It has both quantitative and qualitative aspects to it. From a qualitative standpoint, we consider anything that has potentially negative implications for public health and safety, or economy, national security, homeland security, or the performance of critical programs and activities that Americans rely on. Quantitatively, we also consider the amount of money that may be at risk, and it has to be at least a billion dollars. If we go just from a monetary standpoint, many of these issues are on there, both for these qualitative reasons and their dollar implications, but it doesn’t have to be both. We also have well developed criteria for deciding when we take someone off the list. There has to be leadership commitment, there has to be capacity, both resources and the type of skills and people needed to be able to do it an action plan. There have to be some monitoring efforts of interim milestones and metrics. And then, obviously, some demonstrated progress in reducing the risk or solving a problem. We don’t look for zero risk, that’s not practical, we look for whether the risk is being managed as appropriate under that particular circumstances of that programmer activity.

Tom Temin: And this year, we did have some piece of good news, the removal of the DoD support infrastructure, that’s been on there, I guess quite a while. Give us the story of how something gets off.

Gene Dodaro: Well, in that manner there were several key factors. Number one, they reduced their office space and warehouse space, they also reduced the size of properties. And actually they were over, I think it was about two thirds of the total governmentwide reduction in those areas. They’ve also moved to adopt a recommendation to consider agreements with local governments to provide services to them, which has brought their costs down, they brought their total leasing costs down. And they’ve agreed to implement on our recommendations regarding base closure rounds, we had a number of recommendations. And so if Congress does authorize another base closure round, they will have a better methodology and approach for doing that. It’s important also to recognize that while we take someone off the list, they’re not out of sight. And so we keep monitoring them, they still have some issues concerning the property information that they keep their data, it’s gotten a little better, but it still has a ways to go. But as you know, we have real property management government wide on the list. And we also monitor the financial statements that are prepared for DoD. So we’ll keep an eye on their progress on the data area. But they were one of seven areas that improved over the past two years. And so we were pleased to be able to remove them.

Tom Temin: And I want to talk about two of the significant adds this year. One seems to be connected indirectly, I guess, with the pandemic, and that is the emergency loans for small business. And there were all kinds of promises of transparency and oversight, huge mechanism set up in the enabling legislation, and yet here it is before the loans are even all spent in some cases, on the high risk list.

Gene Dodaro: Yeah, well, I don’t want to take away from the important value that that program has brought to small businesses across the country, it’s been a vital part of dealing with the pandemic and trying to deal with our economic repercussions from the pandemic, and so it’s an important value. However, there are hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent, so you need appropriate transparency and accountability. And it’s really not met the expectations that were set for it. And in addition to GAO’s findings, their financial auditor this year was unable to give an opinion on the financial statements of SBA due to problems and not having adequate documentation for their loan balances and some of their internal controls and other procedures. Now we recommended, Tom, last June that they put in place an oversight next And we’re still just not getting some of the details on how that’s going to be put in place. I recognize they quickly moved in March, there was a lot of concern, and so they did that. And while they weren’t able to establish everything before the program started, they needed to move quickly thereafter to safeguard. There have been a lot of reports on fraud in this program, a lot of investigations underway. And so we felt it was prudent to raise the profile of it to ensure quicker adoption of our recommendations and those of their financial audit.

Tom Temin: And beyond the financial considerations, do you also take into consideration whether the loans went to the intended businesses, and that they were distributed in a fair and equitable manner?

Gene Dodaro: We’ll be looking at the distribution of who received the loans. Now, there was a wide criteria, initially, that was established. And the criteria has been narrowed with subsequent reiterations of the program. There’s been additional funding that was given in December, and there’s discussion underway now with regard to the latest legislative package. So we’ll be looking at that as whether they coordinate it in accordance with criteria, but at least providing transparency. Originally, they were not going to report publicly who received loans of under $150,000 until there was a court mandate that they do that. And so I think going forward, there’ll be more transparency, which will help, but we’ll be looking at that carefully.

Tom Temin: And the other add was drug misuse, and dealing with the whole issue. You didn’t state it directly, but it sounds like the opioid crisis, which kind of got shunted to the background and the news sense because of the advent of the pandemic. But that is very much a crisis still with the United States, a public health crisis.

Gene Dodaro: Absolutely. Between 2002 and 2019, 800,000 people died from a drug overdose. We’re covering, Tom, both misuse of prescription drugs, but also abuse of illegal drugs. And so it’s a broad category. From May 2019, to May 2020, which is a latest preliminary data available from CDC, it had the largest recorded number of deaths, 80,000 on an annual basis. So there’s a lot of loss of life, there’s a lot of economic implications of this. And so it’s a costly problem that we’re facing in our country, both from serious loss of life, but also the economic repercussions of it. And we felt that the Office of Drug Control Management had not had a full plan, they develop one, and they got a little bit better between ’19 and ’20. But there was no plan in ’17 and ’18. So we’ve been looking at this for a while. And it requires greater federal leadership, greater coordination, not only among federal agencies, but with the state and local sector, private sector, health care providers, law enforcement officials — it’s a multifaceted problem that’s plagued the United States for many years. And I felt it was time to elevate this to the high risk status in hopes that it would get greater attention. And we’d make greater progress from a human standpoint, as well as a financial one.

Tom Temin: And another issue that seems connected to the pandemic and also kind of related in some sense to what we were talking about earlier with respect to the opioid crisis, and that is NIH management of public health emergencies. Was that a pandemic related question or something broader?

Gene Dodaro: Well, we looked at the whole Department of Health and Human Services. So it’s really an HHS issue there, Tom. And the effort there was really picking up on things that we had identified pre-pandemic with regard to bio-defense handling of H1N1 and previous communicable disease outbreaks. So we’ve got a set of evolving lessons learned out of dealing with public health emergencies. There are four that we’re tracking right now. One is have a greater clarity on roles and responsibilities. There aren’t always clear as what’s federal versus state and local, who among the federal agencies has responsibility, so this needs to be clearer and well established and well developed ahead of time. So we’re not sorting this out in the middle of a pandemic, there needs to be earlier increase in transparency and accountability. We’ve kind of talked about that in the loan program, but it’s equally true in the health arena, and we’ve identified opportunities for improvement there. Also, you need better data, we’ve been plagued with incomplete and lack of comprehensive data during the pandemic on testing, questions now about who’s receiving the vaccine, how it’s being distributed equitably across different racial groups who have been affected differently by the pandemic. So there’s questions about that. And so we need better data. What the pandemic has done is really laid bare the decentralized nature of our public health system in the United States. And we need to focus on the type of consistent data that we can collect across the country to have better surveillance and better target where we need to allocate resources. And then the last area is clear communications. This has been a problem, there had been inconsistent information regarding school openings, who should be tested, who shouldn’t be tested, whether you should wear masks, you shouldn’t wear masks. And we need clear communications consistently among time, the vaccine issue is another example of that. And so these are the lessons learned that we’re tracking. And to make a determination whether we want to add this area after we pass this pandemic, to the high risk list to make sure we’re in a better position to deal with future emergencies.

Tom Temin: And zooming out to the list as a whole — did you have evidence that other programs or the government in general has been affected by the pandemic?

Gene Dodaro: We’re looking at many of those issues now. We’re looking at how agencies adapted to tell work, for example, across government and how it affected their operations. We pointed out in the high risk report how it did affect certain areas on the high risk list. For example, at Social Security Administration and at VA, in terms of their ability to handle disability claims. I mean, they weren’t able to do in person interviews, they had some difficulty getting medical data, they’re sorting through that, and they’re trying, but that’s caused the backlog in those procedures. It’s caused problems at the IRS, for example, and their inability to process the paper returns that they still receive, while a lot comes in electronically, there’s still millions of forms that come in, they weren’t able to get into their service centers for a while open the mail. And as a result, they had to pay interest on the refunds. So it’s had a wide impact across the agencies, and we’re looking at lessons learned there as well.

Tom Temin: And I guess it affected some of the specific programs on the list. And we’ll just kind of do the lightning round here. The decennial Census certainly was affected by the pandemic and still living with the issues, aren’t they?

Gene Dodaro: Absolutely. I mean, they had to shut down for a couple months, maybe a little bit longer. That affected their data gathering in the field. Now while this year, they used an internet response rate, which helped in that area, they still had to go in person to follow up where people didn’t respond either through the internet or through the regular mail of brochures that they have. And so then they stop their data collection earlier than what they originally were planning to do. And so they’re sorting out right now a lot of issues about what the quality of the Census would be, and the amounts that would be sent for apportionment and redistricting are yet to be determined.

Tom Temin: Right. And they really haven’t come out with the full results, so the deadline, even though there was an argument with Congress and the administration at the time over what the deadline would be, the reality is that the deadline has come and gone. And whatever they set as the new deadline is still ahead.

Gene Dodaro: That’s correct.

Tom Temin: Alright. And USPS, the Postal Service financial viability, that’s been a perennial, but yet also exacerbated in some ways by the pandemic.

Gene Dodaro: Yeah, absolutely. They’ve in addition of financial problems, they’ve had performance issues, it has been well publicized. And so they are badly in need of reforms. I know the Postmaster General right now is working on a package, once that’s made public, we’ll be able to take a look at that and evaluate that. We’ve advised the Congress that they need to act in this area, what really needs to be done here, in my opinion, is we need to come to grips with what services that we want and expect the Postal Service to provide, and then figure out how to pay for it. And what kind of governance structure we want, what kind of organization that we want longer term. There are a lot of dynamics at play here. There’s technology, and people are communicating more in a digital format, not paper format. The most profitable line of business for the Postal Service has been first class mail, which is at a declining volume. They’ve picked up the package area quite a bit, but there’s a lot of competition in that area, which they don’t have for first class mail. So there’s a lot of fundamental issues that need to be addressed at the Postal Service. I’m glad the Congress has focused on this, as well as the Postal Service itself.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I guess I would tell a couple of members of Congress, yes UPS can also get a letter there in two days, but it won’t cost 57 cents, it’ll cost 12 bucks. And sometimes I think that gets lost in the argument also.

Gene Dodaro: Yeah, well, and there’s a lot of concern about rural areas and the interconnectedness of the public service aspects of the Postal Service and having a unified system. And so the real question is, we still seem to want that kind of an approach, and we want it as a public service, but we’re going to have to figure out what kind of delivery standards we want, how we’re going to pay for it.

Tom Temin: And I wish we had four more hours to go over the entire list because it never gets dull, especially with your encyclopedic recall. But I didn’t want to give up the interview without checking in on the fact that GAO itself is celebrating 100 years, a century of service to Congress, service to the nation. How are you marking all of this, especially with people scattered because of the pandemic?

Gene Dodaro: Yeah. Well, we’re continuing to have great productivity and impact in our work while we’re working in remote environments. And, and we’ve adapted quite well, I’m very proud of the GAO workforce and how we’ve been able to continue to provide services to the Congress uninterrupted through this effort. We’ve got a special logo this year, a century of fact based, nonpartisan work is our logo for this year. And we’re having a number of celebrations, most of them will be virtual throughout the year. And we’re postponing, trying to have the biggest celebration till later in the calendar year where we might be able to do something in person. We’ll have to see how things unfold between now and then. And in fine GAO tradition, Tom, my motto to the team planning this effort is I wanted to celebrate our 100th anniversary by wanting it to be elegant, but cheap. So we’re not spending a lot of money on this, but we are celebrating in a number of different fashions in an appropriate way.

Tom Temin: But at some point, you’ve got to have a yard by six foot cake at some point, right?

Gene Dodaro: Well, we’ll see Tom. There are rules against using federal appropriated money for food. So we’re not gonna run afoul of an appropriation law.

Tom Temin: Alright, maybe pass the hat in this case and if you want a cake put a quarter in the kitty. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro the Government Accountability Office. As always, thanks so much.

Gene Dodaro: It’s always good to be with you Tom.

Related Stories