GAO’s review of high-risk government programs includes many repeat offenders

Congress’ main investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, has released its latest list of government programs at high-risk of waste, fraud and abuse, continuing a tradition of providing lawmakers with the report every two years at the start of a new Congress.

And most on this year’s list are long-time, repeat offenders.

“The federal government is the world’s largest and most complex entity, with about $3.5 trillion in outlays in fiscal year 2012 funding a broad array of programs and operations,” the GAO said.

The watchdog office keeps the list to “focus attention on government operations that it identifies as high risk due to their greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.”

And while the list is often successful in drawing lawmaker’s attention to problem areas, there’s been a mixed record on improving oversight.  In the past 20 years, just one-third of the programs have made sufficient progress to no longer be considered high risk.

“Since 1990, more than one-third of the areas previously designated as high risk have been removed from the list because sufficient progress was made to address the problems identified,” the GAO said.

The progress is too slow for one key lawmaker.

“The GAO’s latest High Risk List includes seventeen items that have been on the list more than a decade, and six that have been on the list since it began in 1990,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The inability of government to effectively address ongoing concerns about health care and insurance programs that have become fixtures on the high risk list, as well as new additions…are all reminders that taxpayers deserve better from their government.”

The list covers programs from many branches of government, such as financial woes at the U.S. Postal Service, Medicare and Medicaid benefits and the Pentagon’s financial and supply management, as well as its weapons systems aquisitions.

Two programs were improved enough to be stricken from the list.  The GAO said departments have increased data collection and planning amongst themselves, making interagency contracting much less risky. 

And the Internal Revenue Service has increased its oversight and computer support for it’s Business Systems Modernization, an endeavour to upgrade IRS capabilites and “replace the agency’s aging business and tax processing systems.”

But two other areas have been added to the list in their place.  Climate change presents large financial risks to the U.S. government, the GAO said, and it’s an area the government is so far ill prepared to address.

“Among other impacts, climate change could threaten coastal areas with rising sea levels, alter agricultural productivity, and increase the intensity and frequency of severe weather events such as floods, drought, and hurricanes,” the GAO said. “Weather-related events have cost the nation tens of billions of dollars in damages over the past decade.”

Also, delays in acquiring new weather satellies may lead to gaps in effective knowledge of weather systems, atmospheric currents and storms.

“The importance of such data was recently highlighted by the advance warnings of the path, timing, and intensity of Superstorm Sandy,” the GAO said.

At the worst case scenario, investigators are concerned that weather satellite data could be seriously reduced for as long as 53 months – almost four and a half years.


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