Nearly every program on the Government Accountability Office’s biennial High Risk list, released Thursday, made some course correction over the past two years.
The Homeland Security Department’s management functions and the Defense Department’s management of its supply chain are two that Comptroller General Gene Dodaro specifically highlighted as troubled programs starting to head down the right path.
“DHS has made steady progress in their initial implementation since they were stood up in 2003. We put them on the list at that time because of the big challenges they had in integrating 22 into the department and begin to integrate their management systems,” he said in an interview with Federal News Radio Thursday after testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the High Risk list. “They have strategic plans now. They’ve hired a workforce. They’ve set up the infrastructure and some of the mechanics of operating the department effectively. But they still need to make improvements in some of the management functions of the department that are affecting their ability to deliver their mission results.”
Dodaro said better acquisition and financial management, and continued improvement in the technology and human capital management areas are the main things DHS still must work on. GAO identified 31 areas in need of attention and improvement. He said DHS (http://www.federalnewsradio.com/473/3014706/Management-successes-paving-the-way-for-One-DHS) fully implemented six of those 31 recommendations and started working on some other ones.
Leadership support is key
GAO found DoD met two of the five criteria to be removed from the High Risk list.
“Specifically, DoD has demonstrated top leadership support for improving supply chain management, and the department has the capacity to resolve risks in this area,” GAO wrote in its report to Congress. “For example, DoD leadership has developed and begun implementing a congressionally mandated plan for improving inventory management.”
DoD still has seven programs on the list, including its business systems modernization, financial management and approach to business transformation.
Overall, GAO (http://www.federalnewsradio.com/440/3225403/IRS-program-interagency-contracting-finally-removed-from-High-Risk-list) placed 30 programs on the 2013 High Risk list, including two new ones: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellite program, specifically the acquisition and management strategies around how it is replacing both polar orbiting and geostationary satellites. The second is the federal government’s financial risk because of climate change. This topic is focused on several things the government does, including the risk to federal property and lands, the flood and crop insurance programs run by FEMA and the Agriculture Department and funding to state and local communities as part of the disaster relief effort.
GAO also removed two programs—the management of interagency contracting and the IRS’s Business System Modernization program.
Dodaro said GAO looked at several factors that helped decide the IRS made the progress needed to get off the list.
“They finally delivered their first installment of the tax system modernization and that will allow more timely updating for taxpayer accounts on a daily basis, which will improves services to the taxpayer and puts them in a better position to carry out their enforcement and tax administration responsibilities. Number 2, their investment practices have gone from years ago not being very effective to now, we believe, they have implemented about 80 percent of all the best practices for IT investment management and actually all the best practices for project management oversight. Third, we have suggested overtime that computer maturity model assessments are important. They’ve recently received a Level 3 under the Software Engineering Institute’s Computer Maturity Model Assessment.”
Contracting problems fixed
Dodaro said it just wasn’t GAO who recognized the progress in each of the last three high-risk lists, but Congress in fiscal 2012 didn’t require IRS to provide them with an expenditure plan. He said that is a sign Congress is more trusting of the agency’s direction.
The Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the General Services Administration followed a similar route as the IRS to get the management of interagency contracting off the list.
Dodaro said the problems GAO and agency inspectors general found eight years ago mostly have been solved.
“All the mechanisms were put in place and controls for it to operate more effectively, first at the individual agency level. For example, reports from the DoD IG have shown steady progress in those areas,” he said. “Secondly, the Federal Acquisition Regulations was changed to require best procurement practices approach. Thirdly, OMB put in place new rules for business cases for new contract systems, and better data is being collected.”
One of those ways the OFPP is collecting better data is through a new online directory of multiple award contracts.
Dodaro said the database is a key piece to the improvement puzzle.
“It makes a huge difference. What you need here in order to make progress on these areas is greater transparency,” he said. “It’s one thing to say you shouldn’t duplicate something, but you need to know what else is already in existence. The lack of data and transparency around this process was one of the reasons they were put on the list. That’s very important the system be kept up-to-date and used.”
OFPP administrator Joe Jordan said GAO’s decision to take interagency contracting off the High Risk list comes at a good time to bring confidence to the federal acquisition system.
“I appreciate GAO’s recognition of the tremendous work that has been done to improve the utilization of interagency contracting as a money-saving tool for agencies,” Jordan said in an email. “When done right, agencies working together to award and manage a single vehicle instead of many agency-specific contracts can provide tremendous value to their missions and the taxpayer.”
New to the list
The two new high risk areas should pay close attention to the steps the IRS and OFPP took to get off of GAO’s list.
NOAA’s troubles are because of poor acquisition and management problems with its polar orbiting and geospatial satellite replacement programs.
“We’re in a situation where in the 2016 timeframe there is a satellite that will basically will reach the end of its useful life and we’re not launching a new one until 2017,” said David Powner, director of GAO’s IT team. “That’s the best case situation. That provides about a 17 month gap in satellite coverage, and depending on if that satellite lasts less than what’s expected or if there are any other delays, that gap in satellite coverage could be even more. We are looking at anywhere from a 17 to a 53 month gap in satellite coverage. Our recommendation to NOAA has been to put in contingency plans to address those gaps.”
Powner said the contingency plans could include extending the current satellite’s usefulness, move up the launch date of the new satellite, use other government satellites from DoD or from foreign countries, or get other weather observations data.
A NOAA spokeswoman said in an email statement that the administration recognized the problems with the satellite programs and has tried to fix them, but has run into budget challenges.
“Our top priority is ensuring NOAA’s National Weather Service is able to maintain the accuracy and timeliness of its forecasts and warnings,” the spokeswoman said. “The administration is committed to providing the American public with life and property-saving forecasts and warnings. NOAA continues to develop mitigation plans for any potential gap, which will be re-assessed on a bi-annual basis to account for new developments as they occur.”
But Dodaro said he disagreed with NOAA’s claim of budget problems as the reason for the weather satellite problems. He said NOAA needs to improve their internal controls.
More can be done to mitigate climate risks
Lawmakers were most interested in the GAO’s decision to add risks to agencies because of climate change.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) lauded GAO’s decision to have the government address its risk from natural disasters.
“When you look at climate change, Hurricane Sandy and others, it points out that we have underprepared through FEMA and through our emergency funds, including flood control for a generation,” Issa said. “For the 12 years I’ve served here in Congress, we’ve almost always had a supplemental as if though we didn’t anticipate a flood, a hurricane, or in my home state an earthquake or a fire.”
He said the government must mitigate what nature has been or will do to the nation.
“The fact that the Comptroller General has made it very clear that we have not prepared properly, that the federal government has a financial risk that we have not properly mitigated is a wakeup call to all of us,” Issa said.
Issa, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, all promised to use the high risk list as a tool for increased oversight.
“We will look at everything on the list and some not in the list,” Issa said. “I also want to point out that we will look in the order of dollars, and with the Speaker’s leadership, we will look at it throughout Congress. In fact, there is a commitment by the Speaker and the Majority Leader to have us split up this work and do it throughout Congress. Today, we will be sending footnoted copies to the other committees suggesting areas they may in their primary jurisdiction concentrate on.”
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 8-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.