GAO reports are welcome on the Hill, because they give elected officials lots of information for their oversight of federal agencies. Politicians can use that to breathlessly bash their favorite bureaucratic targets with over-the-top oratory that contrasts sharply with GAO’s boring, objective style.
Every two years, at the beginning of a congressional term, GAO provides something for everyone in Congress. It’s the high-risk list that covers serious issues with programs all across the government. This year’s list is almost 700 pages long and is scheduled for release at House and Senate hearings on Wednesday. Much of it is deadly dull but important, nonetheless. Here’s a look.
First the good news.
“Since GAO’s last high-risk update, many of the 32 high-risk areas on the 2015 list have shown solid progress,” the 2017 report says. “Twenty-three high-risk areas, or two-thirds of all the areas, have met or partially met all five criteria for removal from the High-Risk List.”
But that’s not the only way to view it.
“Since the 2015 list, “only one program was removed. Three programs have been added,” Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in remarks prepared for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. “More concerning, six areas have been listed by GAO as ‘high risk’ since the report’s inception 27 years ago.”
Once an agency gets on the list, it’s not easy to get off. GAO looks at five criteria: leadership commitment, agency capacity, an action plan, monitoring efforts and demonstrated progress.
GAO’s prescription for agency success: “Perseverance by the executive branch in implementing GAO’s recommended solutions and continued oversight and action by Congress are essential to achieving greater progress.”
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) called the report “a roadmap of sorts for this committee, helping us focus on the highest priority items” in remarks planned for his panel’s hearing.
Terrorism is a high priority, and GAO has encouraging information on that front. Managing terrorism-related information is the only area removed from the list since 2015.
“Significant progress had been made to strengthen how intelligence on terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement is shared among federal, state, local, tribal, international, and private sector partners,” according to GAO.
Health care for veterans was added to the list in 2015, and it remains an area needing “substantive attention,” GAO said. The Department of Veterans Affairs developed an action plan to address problems, but GAO found the plan has “overly ambitious deadlines for completion,” and lacks a thorough analysis of the issues, clear metrics to gauge progress and the resources needed for success.
GAO’s list now has 34 items, including these three new areas:
- Federal environmental liabilities: The government is financially responsible for cleaning places where federal activities contaminated the environment, according to GAO. “Because of the lack of complete information and the often inconsistent approach to making cleanup decisions, federal agencies cannot always address their environmental liabilities in ways that maximize the reduction of health and safety risks to the public and the environment in a cost-effective manner.” Since 1994, 13 of 28 GAO recommendations in this area have not been implemented.
- Management of Indian programs: The departments of the Interior and of Health and Human Services “have ineffectively administered Indian education and health care programs and inefficiently developed Indian energy resources. Thirty-nine of 41 previous GAO recommendations on this issue remain unimplemented.”
- The 2020 census: It costs a lot to count. At $12.3 billion, the 2010 census was the most expensive ever and 31 percent costlier than the 2000 count. The Census Bureau has extensive plans, including greater use of technology, for the 2020 count that also “raise serious concerns about the Bureau’s ability to conduct a cost-effective enumeration.” The bureau has implemented six of 30 GAO recommendations since 2014.
Johnson said the 2020 Census could cost as much as $17.8 billion.
“At that price, the Census would cost $124 per household to administer, compared to just $16 per household in 1970 in inflation-adjusted terms,” he said. “This is inexplicable; it should be getting cheaper to count our population in the digital age, not more expensive.”