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GAO's 'High Risk' List Comings and Goings

By Paul Volpe

One of the more Eye-raising findings in the General Accountability Office's new "high risk" report is how long some issues have appeared on the list, which was first published in 1990.

This chart from the GAO report demonstrates how long some of the 30 items currently listed have appeared on the "high risk" list:

Year That Areas on GAO’s 2009 High-Risk List Were Designated as High Risk

Area Year designated high risk
Medicare Program 1990
DOD Supply Chain Management 1990
DOD Weapon Systems Acquisition 1990
DOE’s Contract Management for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Office of Environmental Management 1990
NASA Acquisition Management 1990
Enforcement of Tax Laws 1990
DOD Contract Management 1992
DOD Financial Management 1995
DOD Business Systems Modernization 1995
IRS Business Systems Modernization 1995
Protecting the Federal Government’s Information Systems and the Nation’s Critical Infrastructures 1997
DOD Support Infrastructure Management 1997
Strategic Human Capital Management 2001
Medicaid Program 2003
Managing Federal Real Property 2003
Improving and Modernizing Federal Disability Programs 2003
Implementing and Transforming the Department of Homeland Security 2003
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation Insurance Programs 2003
Establishing Effective Mechanisms for Sharing Terrorism-Related Information to Protect the Homeland 2005
DOD Approach to Business Transformation 2005
DOD Personnel Security Clearance Program 2005
Management of Interagency Contracting 2005
National Flood Insurance Program 2006
Funding the Nation’s Surface Transportation System 2007
Ensuring the Effective Protection of Technologies Critical to U.S. National Security Interests 2007
Revamping Federal Oversight of Food Safety 2007
2010 Census 2008
Modernizing the Outdated U.S. Financial Regulatory System 2009
Protecting Public Health through Enhanced Oversight of Medical Products 2009
Transforming EPA's Processes for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals 2009
Source: GAO.

Six items have appeared on the list since its inception in 1990. Twelve total items have appeared for more than 10 years. The GAO uses guidelines established back in 2000 that determine if, among other things, the risk is inherent or systemic, whether it threatens the nation's health, national security, economic growth or ability to deliver essential services and whether the risk could lead to the failure of a government program.

Most of the longest-lasting risks have something to do with government contracting, what Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) yesterday called "a black hole for taxpayer dollars."

Contracting issues are most serious at the Defense Department. As The Post's Joe Davidson notes, GAO recommends the Pentagon take "a more proactive approach" to managing contracts and ensuring that the department's "acquisition workforce is adequately sized, trained and equipped to meet the department's needs."

Here's another chart from the report that demonstrates the progress of the "high risk" list since 1990:

Changes to GAO’s High-Risk List, 1990-2009

Number of areas
Original high-risk list in 1990 14
High-risk areas added since 1990 37
High-risk areas removed since 1990 19
High-risk areas consolidated since 1990 2
High-risk list in 2009 30
Source: GAO

GAO writes that the removal of certain programs "demonstrate(s) that the sustained attention and commitment by Congress and agencies to resolve serious, long-standing high-risk problems have paid off, as root causes of the government’s exposure for half of our original high-risk list have been successfully addressed."

Lawmakers echoed the GAO's sentiments during the formal release of the list yesterday on Capitol Hill.

“The task of rooting out waste, fraud, abuse and inefficiencies in the federal government, as well as identifying agencies and activities at risk of failure, requires persistent and diligent oversight," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member on the Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who considers government management a pet project, suggested the government needs to do a better job recruiting skilled managers.

"What a great gift we could provide to the American public if we were to reduce the level of waste, fraud and abuse in these high-risk areas with the best and brightest civil servants," he said.

Finally, here's the list of programs GAO has removed the "high risk" list through the years:

Areas Removed from GAO’s High-Risk List, 1990-2009

Area Year Removed Year Designated High Risk
Federal Transit Administration Grant Management 1995 1990
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation 1995 1990
Resolution Trust Corporation 1995 1990
State Department Management of Overseas Real Property 1995 1990
Bank Insurance Fund 1995 1991
Customs Service Financial Management 1999 1991
Farm Loan Programs 2001 1990
Superfund Program 2001 1990
National Weather Service Modernization 2001 1995
The 2000 Census 2001 1997
The Year 2000 Computing Challenge 2001 1997
Asset Forfeiture Programs 2003 1990
Supplemental Security Income 2003 1997
Student Financial Aid Programs 2005 1990
Federal Aviation Administration Financial Management 2005 1999
Forest Service Financial Management 2005 1999
HUD Single-Family Mortgage Insurance and Rental Housing Assistance Programs 2007 1994
U.S. Postal Service’s Transformation Efforts and Long-Term Outlook 2007 2001
FAA’s Air Traffic Control Modernization 2009 1995
Source: GAO

It's evident that a steady and patient focus on problem areas has resulted in some successes and the "high risk" list is a great way for anyone to track government progress. Considering the nation's appetite for change and general disfavor with Washington, the new administration, lawmakers and the federal workforce should probably work with a bit more haste to knock more of these troubled issues off the list.

By Paul Volpe  | January 23, 2009; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Congress, Oversight  
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Somehow, the fact that the 2000 Census and the Year 2000 Computing Challenge were each successfully completed and removed from the high risk list seems unsurprising. In each case, of course, this happened in 2001. Maybe the time-specific items should be in a separate category.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | January 23, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

If the Bank Insurance Fund, the Farm Loan Program and the Student Financial Aid program are no longer at risk, I guess I am uninformed about the current status of those programs, or what it means to be "at risk".

Posted by: biggerjake | January 27, 2009 12:21 AM | Report abuse

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