What does it take for agencies to get off GAO’s High Risk List?

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Good behavior can get a con out of prison. Good behavior can also get your program off the Government Accountability Office’s never-ending list of high-risk federal programs. In fact, the GAO just issued guidance on how get off the list. For highlights, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the GAO’s director of strategic issues, Michelle Sager.

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

Good behavior can get a con out of prison. Good behavior can also get your program off the Government Accountability Office’s never-ending list of high-risk federal programs. In fact, the GAO just issued guidance on how get off the list. For highlights, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the GAO’s director of strategic issues, Michelle Sager.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Sager, good to have you back.

Michelle Sager: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Tom Temin: And you have issued kind of a midterm report in between lists, because the last high risk list came out in ’21. Next year, there’s another one. But this report is basically a how-to guide to get a program off the list if it’s on there now, correct?

Michelle Sager: That’s right, this report is a little bit different. And it responds to some of the questions that we regularly receive at congressional hearings, just to given the number of areas on the list. There’s currently 37 areas on the High Risk List. And one of the questions that the comptroller general in particular frequently receives at congressional hearings, is can areas ever be removed from the list. So this report is intended to be a guide to go into detail about what it takes for agencies to show progress and potentially be removed from the list. And then it also provides a dozen case studies showing areas where areas have been removed from the list or they have narrowed in scope over time.

Tom Temin: And between the ’19 and ’21. lists, some programs did escape the list, what are a couple of those that were case histories for this current report?

Michelle Sager: In this current report, we go into detail on 12 specific areas. And then we also provide the full list of areas on the High Risk List. Last year was one of our regular reports that we issue when there is a new Congress. And in that report, one of the things that we talked about are areas that had shown progress. And we did remove an area from the list and detailed that in our 2021 report. That was Department of Defense Support Infrastructure Management. And among other things, DoD had shown how they more efficiently used military installation space, and reduced their infrastructure footprint and used the leases, and that in turn, saved millions of dollars and improved the use of installation agreements that then reduced base support costs.

Tom Temin: Right. And I guess that points up the fact that the High Risk List can refer to several risks. One is purely financial. But the other type of risk is to the mission delivery itself. True?

Michelle Sager: That’s correct. So in terms of why this matters, you pointed out one of the key reasons and that is because the potential exists for saving billions of dollars. And one of the things we highlight in this current report is that we have in the last 16 fiscal years been able to document saving more than $600 billion in financial benefits. And that is, of course, important. But in addition to that, showing progress on these high risk areas, also improved services for the public. And it can enhance the ability to achieve agency missions. And, importantly, also restore trust in government.

Tom Temin: Got it. So you took the 12 areas that had made it off of the list, and made a composite on the best practices that they exhibited. And that constitutes this latest, I guess you could call it advice issued from GAO?

Michelle Sager: So these 12 areas are illustrative examples understanding that if you’re an agency official, and you’re trying to determine what it is that you need to do, these 12 examples that we selected were areas that had been removed from the list as well as areas that had narrowed in scope. And it also included some areas that have been on the list since it was established in 1990, but have shown significant progress.

Tom Temin: And which programs have been on the list since 1990? How many of those?

Michelle Sager: So the ones that we highlight in this report, there’s six areas that have been on the list since 1990. But they’ve shown significant progress and the report goes into detail. And those include, I’ll just rattle them off for you: Department of Defense Weapons System Acquisitions, Department of Energy Contract Management for the National Nuclear Security Agency and Office of Environmental Management, enforcement of tax laws, Medicare program and improper payments, NASA Acquisition Management and then finally, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation Insurance Program. And those are illustrative of areas that are really complex challenges for the federal government and that explains why they’ve remained on the list.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michelle Sager. She’s director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, and then give us the highlights of the advice that you are issuing here for agencies that want to get off the High Risk List. And I just want to begin by pointing out, it’s not only the program manager responsibility here, is it?

Michelle Sager: That’s correct. What we detail in this report is the five practices that agencies can consider as they’re trying to make progress and show that they are moving forward on these areas. And the first of those is leadership commitment. And that can be leadership commitment through the agency to agency officials, but also working with OMB and working with Congress. So that’s really critical. And then in addition to leadership commitment, there are five other key practices. And that includes capacity in terms of people and resources, having an action plan in place that can define the root causes and solutions, monitoring, and showing demonstrated progress. So leadership, commitment, capacity, action plan, monitoring and demonstrated progress. Those are the areas that we use as we’re assessing the areas on the High Risk List. And then we also provide examples of how agencies have taken action in response to those practices, as they have made that forward progress over time.

Tom Temin: It strikes me that those practices, if followed from the beginning of a program, could keep it off the list in the first place. And the one I’m thinking of is the SBA Pandemic Relief Loans Program, which everyone kind of expected would be trouble. And even though there was an oversight and an accountability plan built into the law, it still has to be executed on by people. And so now it’s on the High Risk List. And bits and pieces of reports of terrible fraud and abuse of that program are starting to trickle in.

Michelle Sager: So that is an area that we added in 2021, emergency loans for small business. Another area we added last year was national efforts to prevent, respond to and recover from drug misuse. And so you’re right, having a plan in place, particularly as new programs come into fruition, about how you’re going to pull together, whether it’s a task force or working with Congress or working with OMB, in your budget justification, what that plan is going to be at the top, but also thinking about what it would take, do you have the people in place? How much would it take in terms of funding? Do you have the internal controls that need to exist? And then establishing that action plan. What’s your plan? How are you going to manage the project? What are your milestones? And then how do you know if you’ve actually made progress and monitoring along the way to demonstrate that progress?

Tom Temin: And in launching a program or planning a program or reauthorizing a program, whatever the case might be? Is it ever possible to discern some type of ratio to the dollars or some portion of the dollars expended in a program that should be devoted to these issues of monitoring, oversight, measurement metrics, and ensuring the outcomes you want?

Michelle Sager: That’s an interesting question. And we don’t have a specific dollar amount or specific percentage per se. And in part, it’s because these are some of the most complex, sometimes seemingly intractable issues facing the federal government. When you think about some of the issues that have remained on the list for a long time, such as the Medicare program or enforcement of tax laws. Those are topics that are critically important to the operation of the federal government and critically important to citizens, to the general public. And how that looks that a particular agency really depends on the specific program. So it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much of a program or an agency’s resources should be devoted in that way.

Tom Temin: Getting back to the most recent report here, then, on how to get off the list. Basically, we’ll call it that handbook, if you will, who should read it?

Michelle Sager: Of course, we always think that these reports are beneficial to everyone, but certainly agency officials who are thinking about their own programs and their own strategies. OMB has been working with us as we’re working with agencies. But of course, most importantly, we are responding to congressional interest in what it takes to show progress on the High Risk List and also doing some myth busting. I think sometimes, there’s a perception that once an area is on the list, it remains on the list in perpetuity. And in fact, there are these demonstrated success stories where agencies have taken actions, have worked with OMB, have worked with Congress, and they’ve shown tremendous progress for the benefit of the general public.

Tom Temin: Michelle Sager is director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michelle Sager: Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.

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