Not Half Bad

By Tom Shoop

On Jan. 26, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., took to the House floor for one of those run-of-the-mill speeches that take up much of the typical legislative day. Schiff expressed his condolences to the victims of that morning's train crash in Glendale, Calif., and for 35 Marines killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq.

Then he started making the case that there was a "critical need for oversight" of the Defense Department and other federal agencies on Capitol Hill. That need, he said, was "underscored by a new Government Accountability Office report outlining and updating its high-risk list." The report, he noted, listed 25 federal programs vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.

As Schiff spoke, he didn't exactly hold the rapt attention of his fellow lawmakers. Many of them milled about the floor, absorbed in their own conversations. One, seated directly behind him, appeared to be struggling to remain awake.

It's hardly surprising that GAO's biennial report on government's management challenges didn't stir the hearts of the nation's elected representatives. After all, like other GAO products, it's not exactly light reading. But this year's high-risk report is worth paying attention to, if you're willing to read between the lines.

If you do, you'll find something interesting: The news is pretty good.

In the report, GAO removed the high-risk designation from three areas: student financial aid programs and financial management at the Federal Aviation Administration and the Forest Service. At the same time, GAO's watchdogs slapped the high-risk tag on four new areas: homeland security information sharing, Defense business transformation efforts, the Pentagon's security clearance system, and interagency contracting.

But before you dismiss this as a case of three steps forward and four steps back in federal management, you need to look at the bigger picture.

Sixteen areas have been removed from the list since it was first issued in 1990. Eight of those were on the original list of 14 problematic programs and operations. "The sustained attention and commitment by the Congress and agencies to resolve serious, long-standing high-risk programs has paid off," GAO concluded. And getting off the list is no easy task. It involves years of commitment to improving operations and demonstrating results.

Even in areas that are still on the list, agencies aren't standing still. In all such areas, "there has been important but varying levels of progress" since GAO last put out the high-risk list in 2003, the report noted. In many cases, the Office of Management and Budget has established specific action plans and milestones for agencies to tackle high-risk issues.

Finally, it's clear that GAO has raised the bar on what constitutes a high-risk program. Historically, the report notes, the designation was reserved for federal operations and processes that had demonstrated "traditional vulnerabilities" to fraud and abuse. In the "evolved" version of the list, GAO officials note, they're concentrating on "areas associated with broad-based transformations needed to achieve greater economy, efficiency, effectiveness, accountability and sustainability."

There's nothing wrong with that. These higher-order problems are exactly what will continue to bedevil a government faced with an ever-growing list of responsibilities on one hand and an ever-tougher battle for resources on the other. But shifting the focus to systemic issues indicates that the lower bar - fixing fundamental systems and processes to reduce the government's vulnerability to waste and mismanagement - has, in most cases, been cleared.

And that's cause for at least a little celebration.

Why have things improved? One reason, as noted in GAO's report, is that the Bush administration used the previous high-risk list as a key basis for its President's Management Agenda, and OMB has held agencies' feet to the fire with quarterly report cards on their progress in fixing problems. Of course, the momentum for such efforts started before the Bush team came to town, with the reinventing government effort of the Clinton administration and the commitment to measuring results embodied in the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act. And, let's face it, good old-fashioned hard-nosed congressional oversight in recent years hasn't hurt either.

Let's just hope members of Congress can stay awake long enough to continue to give such issues the attention they deserve - and agencies the tools to deal with them.