Two agencies prove it’s possible to fix GAO high-risk programs

The Department of Housing and Urban Development had been on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list for 13 years as officials tried unsuccessfully to end improper payments in the agency’s rental housing assistance program. Persistent problems with overseeing lenders and appraisers in its single-family mortgage insurance program also kept HUD on that list.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service, on GAO’s list since 2001, struggled with $11.3 billion in debt and an outdated business model that assumed increased mail volume would cover rising costs.

GAO took HUD and USPS off its high-risk list this year because it said both agencies had fixed the problems that had kept them on the list.

How did they do it?

USPS improved its financial reporting, increased productivity, paid off debt and cut 100,000 career jobs, said Thomas Day, the service’s vice president of government relations.

HUD got off the list by automating the process of verifying applicants’ income before it issues housing vouchers.

Both agencies used similar strategies to work their way off that list. They improved their management processes, modernized their information technology infrastructure and adopted a collaborative approach to correcting weaknesses. HUD and USPS had agency leaders who supported those changes with their authority.

Leaving the high-risk list has had many benefits, said Lisa Schlosser, HUD’s chief information officer. The positive effects of getting off the list radiate beyond the designated programs, she said.

“The trust and confidence in your organization and data goes up automatically from your stakeholders,” Schlosser said.

One secret of HUD’s success is a close working relationship among its chiefs — its CIO, chief financial officer, chief human capital officer and chief acquisition officer.

“Every Monday morning we set aside 8:30 to 9:30 over coffee, and the four of us just sit in a room and talk,” Schlosser said. “It’s moving us forward by that group being in synch.”

A major ingredient in USPS’ success was standardizing its IT infrastructure through a program called the Advanced Computing Environment. The agency also consolidated its human resources functions by creating shared-service centers.

“The way we used to operate there were literally HR departments down at every level of the organization and very fragmented,” Day said.

USPS now operates a human resources data center in North Carolina that provides employees with correct and standard answers to queries about health benefits, and conducts transactions fast and accurately, he said.

The agency also installed an updated point-of-sale retail system to collect revenue. That system includes a retail data mart and database to track and analyze transactions.

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