GAO’s High-Risk List: Reality minus the hysteria

If political developments surrounding the Trump administration seem a bit surreal, the release of the Government Accountability Office’s biennial High-Risk List seemed like normalcy, the government everyone is used to.

There were the GAO directors, calmly reiterating some longstanding problems, adding a few new ones, praising management or fiscal progress by some agencies, chiding others for moving too slowly. Congressional committee members, brows furrowed at times, asked pointed questions but didn’t get nasty. Perhaps they thought, ‘Here we can deal with quantitative, definable problems accompanied by reasoned recommendations for fixing.’

No one demanded scalps, threatened independent prosecutors, complained of leaks, promised mayhem.

Issues raised by the High-Risk List ultimately indicated weaknesses or failures of management. But the GAO, so far as we can tell, approaches the list objectively. It refrains from ascribing evil motives to owners of programs in trouble or impugning their integrity.

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Two items added this year show the range of governmental activities we’ve got to worry about. One literally touches every person in the United States. The other I’d guess few people are aware of and takes place mostly unseen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this year’s list included the Census Bureau’s 2020 count effort. This really big logistics, information technology, and human capital effort must happen according to the Constitution. GAO points out that the cost of the census — per nose counted — has been rising. In constant dollars, GAO says, it cost $16 to count a household in 1970 and $92 in 2010. Declining response rates to Census forms help drive costs up.

The bureau’s strategies to better control costs are what got GAO’s attention. A collection of “previously unused innovations” working in an intricate schedule comprise a classic risk, a sort of mechanical grand design with a “quite small” tolerance for breakdowns. Innovations include internet response, greater use of existing government records on people and their locations, and t the introduction of — ta daa! — mobile devices for field work.

Are they sweating on Silver Hill Road? Hard to tell. But the GAO’s Chris Mihm did point out that Census has only implemented six of GAO’s 30 recommendations for Census.

Also eyebrow-raising was the federal government’s environmental liability. The number GAO puts on the liability has grown from $212 billion in 1997 to $447 billion now and “likely to continue to increase.” Most of this belongs to the Energy Department, responsible for nuclear waste cleanup. Half of Energy’s liabilities center on two sites, one in Washington state and one in South Carolina. It’s not as if the agencies do nothing, but rather that the liabilities are growing faster than the spending on remediation, creating a liability backlog. And the agencies exhibit management weaknesses — holes in planning, uncertain estimates, lack of a risk management approach to where they devote cleanup efforts. That last point has lingered for 20 years.

The 34 programs on the high-risk list cover a lot of territory, a lot of serious business. GAO’s accounting spares those responsible for stewardship of the government the language of vapid hope, hopeless despair and recrimination. Instead, it presents clear-headed ideas for fixing things. Government oversight for grownups.