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Is your program/agency on GAO’s High Risk List

What is the high risk list? Beginning in 1990 the Government Accountability Office started putting together a list of programs that were most vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, mis-management and the need for fundamental transformation.

The GAO produces the list every two years to help Congress and the Executive Branch set priorities on high risk programs.

Chris Mihm is the Managing Director for Strategic Issues at GAO. He told Chris Dorobek on theDorobekINSIDER program that the high risk list is essential for the better business of government.

“The idea is to focus on some of the risks in government and elevate attention to those issues to hopefully make progress and get the higher-ups involved. Agencies also feel the heat to improve especially if they’e been on the list before,” said Mihm.

High Risk Success Stories

“This year we actually had two programs drop off this list. It shows that the list works,” said Mihm.

  1. Inter-agency Contracting: Went on the list in 2005. Agencies didn’t have the right accountability measures in place. Congress and OMB both took additional action. Now there are controls in place.
  2. IRS Business Systems Modernization: Went on the list back in 1995. It’s been a slow and steady slog to get it off the list. They began daily process in January of 2012. So now they allow daily processing of returns, post accounts on a daily basis. They’ve improved customer service and timeliness of returns. There as also been major progress on financial management fronts. They put in place investment control panel. One of the things that really helped was stability at the CIO level.

Impact of the C-Suite

“A trend for people on the high risk list is a high turnover at the c-level. The real challenge is sustaining progress and when you have that turnover is what happens is naturally you get a new team in there and it takes awhile to get up to speed and lose and lot of momentum. You need a continuity of focus or it’s hard to get off the list,” said Mihm.

New Approach from the High Risks List

“We are much more focused, especially in the sections of each high risk discussion where we talk about what more needs to be done. It has led to a much larger report, but it makes it much more valuable,” said Mihm.

Newbies on the List

  1. Climate Change: The federal government’s management of its financial exposure to climate change. The federal government owns or manages a 1/3 of the land mass in the United States. So severe weather events, like tornados, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires has a direct financial impact on the federal government. The government also owns tens of thousands of buildings. They are exposed to insurance claims for floods and crops. Pays billions in disaster recovery. Recently gave $60 billion to help hurricane Sandy.
    1. The federal government does not have a strategic approach across government. Need a senior level effort to start thinking about what are the risks of climate change and how will they be managed. Need to be a re-consideration about the roles and responsibilities between the federal, state and local governments. This is one of the high risk issues that falls in the transformation area. We need to know how much we are potentially on the hook for, how much do we budget for, roles, consequences.
  2. Weather Satellites: There are basically two types of satellites, polar and geo-stationary. The polar satellites predict the weather 3, 5 and 7 days out. Whereas the geo-stationary are the day of. NOAA has long-term acquisition programs for the satellites. But they are enormously complex, expensive and timely. But the problem is the acquisition or launch window has been moved out into the future, we run the risk that there will be gaps in the data we get in terms of weather forecasts. We could end up with gaps starting in two years and lasting for 53 months.
    1. NOAA needs to get contigency plans in place now, because this isn’t just about knowing if it will be rainy. If you just looked at the geo-stationary satellites leading up to Hurricane Sandy you wouldn’t have known it would make landfall because the projections had the eye staying 30 miles off the coast.

Marked Improvement

“Some programs that remain on the list have made serious progress in certain areas. So we have been able to narrow the high list focus,” said Mihn.

  1. When we first put DHS on the high risk list a decade ago it dealt with both the transformation and the management of DHS. The twin concerns were of how are you going to manage this organization and how wil you bring it together and create the organization. A decade later we are comfortable that they are able to operate as a holistic department in such a way that they can successfully execute the mission. Now they just need to make progress on some of the management issues that remain.
  2. We were able to narrow the focus on the oil and gas areas too. It went on the list for 3 reasons, re-organization at the Interior Department, royalties for dealing with oil and gas leases and human capital issues. Because of the progress they made in re-organization we were able to narrow the focus down to the two other areas.

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