Critical Read

How to stay off the High Risk List

GAO Seal

What: "Managing Risk, Improving Results: Lessons for Improving Government Management from GAO's High-Risk List," by the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Why: GAO has been tracking the worst-performing federal agencies since 1990. Being on GAO's High Risk List means an agency is imperiled by waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement. It is a recognition no agency wants or asks for.

IBM's study offers a checklist for agencies to get off the list and stay off.

According to the study, no agency can go it alone on any program that matters. But building strong bridges that connect different policy networks is a challenge.

Using performance measures requires mapping them from present problems to success, with milestones along the way. Good performance metrics drive successful project management, the study states.

Inadequate and aging IT systems are a soft spot. The government needs effective information systems to manage its programs and hold its managers accountable. IT systems are also the bridges to other agencies that can help strengthen the organization.

The solutions to some of the government's biggest problems often require congressional action --new legislation, additional funding or both.

According to the study, some areas are high risk because federal agencies simply don't have enough skilled personnel to manage the problems at hand. For example, GAO points out that the Energy Department spends 90 percent of its budget on contractors, but just 5 percent of its federal workforce is devoted to managing these contracts.

Ineffective contract management can drag an agency down into the swamp.

The more the government relies on extended networks of service providers through complex partnerships that cross boundaries, the harder it is to follow the money. Furthermore, weak financial management leads to exploding costs and extended delays.

Highly complex programs are highly risky, and any flaw can quickly erupt into problems elsewhere. Cybersecurity, federal information systems, privacy issues and the sharing of terrorism-related information are all complex and interrelated, and therefore are inherently hard to manage, the study states.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald encouraged Comptroller General Gene Dodaro to put VA on the high-risk list. McDonald reasoned that his agency was one of the largest businesses in the country and desperately needed to improve. He said the notoriety of the list could help that cause by shining a light on the problem.

Former Department of Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires was pleased with GAO's decision to put IT on the list in 2015 because it "focuses valuable attention and resources on systemic problems."

Verbatim: "The high-risk list is not a sentence to eternal criticism. Rather, when seen through the lens of the root causes that got these programs on the list, it is a piercing analysis of the big challenges facing 21st-century government."

Read the full report.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


  • Telecommunications
    Stock photo ID: 658810513 By asharkyu

    GSA extends EIS deadline to 2023

    Agencies are getting up to three more years on existing telecom contracts before having to shift to the $50 billion Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions vehicle.

  • Workforce
    Shutterstock image ID: 569172169 By Zenzen

    OMB looks to retrain feds to fill cyber needs

    The federal government is taking steps to fill high-demand, skills-gap positions in tech by retraining employees already working within agencies without a cyber or IT background.

  • Acquisition
    GSA Headquarters (Photo by Rena Schild/Shutterstock)

    GSA to consolidate multiple award schedules

    The General Services Administration plans to consolidate dozens of its buying schedules across product areas including IT and services to reduce duplication.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.