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GAO High Risk List Designation: Opportunity for Achieving Organizational Excellence

The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High Risk List (HRL) is an official designation of US government agencies, offices, or programs that are deemed ‘High Risk’ due to ‘their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformation.’ The GAO HRL is updated during each new session of Congress and accompanied by specific guidelines and criteria for how an organization can be removed from the HRL.

While placement on the GAO HRL can pose various challenges to agencies as they seek to make improvements and meet GAO’s removal criteria, it can also offer many opportunities to achieve organizational excellence beyond mitigating the specific issues identified in the HRL-designation status. Sustainable organizational improvements in business practices, operations, culture, and management that may be otherwise difficult to initiate and sustain individually, are often realized through consolidated and robust strategies that aim to address an agency’s HRL issues at the foundational level of their organization.

For most agencies, an HRL designation does not represent isolated problems or compartmentalized issues within their organization. Rather, it is often the case that many interdependent components across management, departments, offices, and functions converge to result in systematic ‘high risks’ within the agency. Agencies may become impeded in their efforts to address their high-risk issues if they don’t recognize that the identified issues are generally symptoms of interconnected and overarching weaknesses in fundamental management practices. Progress can also become difficult to achieve when HRL mitigation strategies are not aligned or integrated with other agency-wide transformational initiatives, policies, and processes, and when those strategies don’t address root causes.

A comprehensive framework that focuses on managing the ‘lifecycle' of integrated HRL mitigation strategies offers the best approach to both achieving an agency’s HRL outcomes and establishing sustainable transformational change. Our framework is designed to assist agencies put in place an end-to-end approach to manage this lifecycle from: establishing appropriate resources, roles and responsibilities; standing up portfolio and program management capabilities; defining root causes; developing goals and strategies; establishing and implementing action plans; and monitoring progress, assessing risks and reporting to GAO.

We use the HRL lifecycle framework to effectively address and manage all aspects of HRL-related issues with our clients. Our standard framework can be tailored in scope and scale to fit a given agency’s specific HRL needs. We have successfully used this framework at the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish effective organizational and managerial functions to support progress toward meeting GAO’s criteria for removal: Leadership Commitment; Capacity; Action Plan; Monitoring; and Demonstrated Progress.

Using this framework, VA has made progress in addressing its healthcare related HRL issues. We continue to support VA drive organizational and operational excellence through efficient operations, improved decision making, clear program requirements, and on track projects and actions related to their HRL issues.

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