GAO’s understatement amplifies risk list

Language your first grader teacher would frown on has become daily talk in politics. Everywhere you listen or read, you find reasons to cringe. Today on one popular homepage you could find these headline words: Lies, furious, corruption, backlash, blatant, rebellions, swamp, mind-boggling, dire and deathwatch.

Yikes, where’s the crossword puzzle?

A politician calls the vice president a “cheerleader for the porn star presidency.” The president calls a columnist a “wacky nut job.” Our public discourse.

By contrast, pronouncements from the Government Accounting Office are models of understatement. I’ve interviewed dozens of GAO directors over the years about hundreds of topics. I can confidently tell you they don’t spit out harsh judgments. If they harbor them, they don’t share them publicly. Nor do they trash agencies or individuals, not even when the tape stops rolling. At most I’ll get an occasional chuckle at an obvious absurdity.

Who was the TV character who said, “Just the facts, ma’am?” We need more of that.

Auditors are tasked with looking at programs a member of Congress suspects has problems. Usually the member is right. The resulting audits can be unsparing in their fact finding. But reports keep and objective tone. They don’t impugn people’s motives.

GAO is required to make judgments about programs and performance, and by extension the people behind them. Yet its headlines and the prose in its reports always strive for good bedside manner. The even-handed tone actually adds gravitas to what the agency is trying to convey.

The latest: “Substantial Efforts Needed to Achieve Greater Progress on High-Risk Areas.” Yes, the latest biennial list of really troubled programs just came out. It’s a grim cavalcade of expensive and persistent misses. They cover any federal activities that touch Americans daily. Postal Service financial viability. Funding surface transportation. The 2020 Decennial Census. The security clearance process, a new addition to the list. Federal oversight of food safety. Assessing and controlling toxic chemicals. Enforcement of tax laws.

Other programs on the list are largely invisible to the public. Acquisition or contract management at the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense and Energy, and NASA. Managing federal real property. Improper payments from Medicare. They spill taxpayer dollars just the same.

GAO’s prescription for programs exiting the high risk list read like Management 101. Disentanglement requires leadership commitment, enough money and people to take on the problem, an action plan, measuring progress and actually showing practice.

Programs do escape. Well, two did anyway. DoD’s supply chain management and mitigating gaps in weather satellite data. On that latter one, launching a new polar orbiting satellite in late 2017 came as the capstone on a lot of ground-level grunt work.

Comptroller Gen. Gene Dodaro testified on the high risk list. Members listened intently. No one is satisfied that the list exists or thinks these issues are good. So what are the committees’ oversight and federal management priorities? What are cabinet secretaries and deputies trying to accomplish?

Thirty five items grace the high risk list. Chris Mihm, GAO’s director of strategic issues, said half made progress over the past two years. He said the progress saved or otherwise accrued $27 billion a year to the government.

“Making progress” on big issues in big bureaucracies takes heavy lifting and also sharp elbows. It results in bruised egos and changes in individuals’ career fortunes. But how much more happens when people focus on the goal and sticking to the facts.

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