GAO's 'High Risk' reports target fed vulnerabilities

The Year 2000 problem and information security practices leave the federal government susceptible to fraud, waste and abuse, according to a series of reports the General Accounting Office released last month.

The so-called "High Risk" reports coincide with the release of 21 other reports that detail major management challenges and program risks across the executive branch, from a troublesome organizational structure at the Department Housing and Urban Development to high infrastructure costs at the Defense Department.

Information technology takes the spotlight in the series of reports. GAO places the Year 2000 problem at the top of the high-risk list. Agency officials describe the Year 2000 as "the most pervasive, time-critical risk facing the federal government today," according to the report. GAO next listed information security weaknesses, productive use of IT and financial management practices as the top high-risk areas.

GAO added to its list of high-risk programs the Federal Aviation Administration and the Forest Service, each of which faces financial management problems, the report said. The Customs Service, cited in the past for similar problems, was removed from the latest GAO list, however.

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said the reports "reveal a fundamental lack of management accountability throughout the government."

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Science Committee, echoed Thompson's concern. "I'm perplexed that these agencies have yet to successfully address these persistent management problems after the Congress has provided these agencies with the necessary management tools."

But Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), ranking minority member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, was more optimistic in his assessment of the reports. "It is frustrating that one of the biggest problems GAO uncovered remains in place, years after they were originally identified," he said. "However, I am satisfied the agencies are aware of their problems and are making serious efforts to ameliorate them."

IT-related highlights in the series of reports include assertions that:

* Weaknesses in financial management practices and in the use of financial computer systems pose the top challenge to better performance at DOD.

* Persistent problems in financial management at the Immigration and Naturalization Service are the No. 1 barrier to improving management at the Justice Department.

* The FAA still faces significant cost overruns, schedule delays and performance shortfalls with its multibillion-dollar air traffic control modernization program.

* Problems with systems for managing American Indian trust accounts as well as for tracking records on land leases and mineral rights are the core technology problems hindering better management at the Interior Department.

* The Department of Health and Human Services does not have access to the data or IT systems needed to effectively manage various programs, and concerns posed by Year 2000 conversion efforts further complicate these shortcomings.

* HUD is wasting billions of dollars because of insufficient management of procurement and the lack of an accurate financial management system.

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