GAO Flags VA Buying, Security Clearance Process as High Risk

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“We keep finding the same problems over and over,” GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told lawmakers.

The Veterans Affairs Department’s acquisition management and the governmentwide security clearance system ranked among some of the 35 federal programs at highest risk for abuse, fraud or mismanagement, according to a congressional auditor.  

The Government Accountability Office released its biennial high-risk list Wednesday with four significant changes: the additions of VA acquisition and the security clearance process, and the removal of the Defense Department’s supply chain management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellite program.

Several technology-focused issues remain on the list, including the 2020 Census, which debuted on the 2017 list thanks to cost overruns and IT issues, and federal information security, which has been highlighted for more than 20 years.

“Over the past 13 years, improvement to high-risk programs has saved us nearly $350 billion, or about $27 billion a year,” House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said at a hearing about the report. “Improving high-risk programs can have a very real effect on Americans’ lives.”

At the hearing, GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro expressed concern over growing challenges among the VA and said he’s concerned about a lack of responsiveness from the agency. GAO added VA to the high-risk list due to the agency’s contracting officer workload challenges, its lack of an effective medical supplies procurement strategy, and the agency’s outdated acquisition regulations and policies.

“We keep finding the same problems over and over,” Dodaro said. “They have a huge budget. It’s not been for a lack of resources that they haven’t addressed these problems, in my opinion.”

GAO urged the VA to use this year’s budget of $86.5 billion—its largest discretionary budget in history—to better manage its contracting and procurement pitfalls. According to the report, the VA has one of the most critical acquisition functions in the federal government, and in the 2017 fiscal year, the agency used about $26 billion, a third of its discretionary budget, to contract goods and services.

GAO said it’s made 31 recommendations addressing VA’s acquisition management challenges back in 2015, and today, 21 recommendations remain open.

“In light of these challenges and given the significant taxpayer investment, it is imperative that VA show sustained leadership commitment to take steps to improve the performance of its procurement function so that it can use its funding in the most efficient manner possible to meet the needs of those who served our country,” the report said.

Though the last report was published in 2017, GAO took the unusual step of adding the personnel security clearance process to the list in January 2018. The administration currently faces a backlog of 565,000 security clearance applications as of February, an amount whittled down from a peak of 725,000 in 2018.

While the report calls for greater congressional oversight to ensure progress across all 35 high risk areas listed, it recognized two areas that showed enough advancement to be removed from the list entirely.

GAO said the Defense Department “has demonstrated commendable, sustained progress improving its supply chain management,” which allowed for its removal after being on the list since the report’s inception.

“Supply chain management is simply knowing how much stuff to buy and where it is. This has been an issue for 30 years,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Oh., said at the hearing. “Removing this is an impressive step for this administration and will lead to a safer, more secure, more efficient military.”

The report also recognized and removed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for effectively closing gaps in weather satellite data. GAO said NOAA “made significant progress in establishing and implementing plans to mitigate potential gaps” and celebrated the launch of NOAA-20, a satellite that provides advanced weather data and forecasts.

The report notes that GAO will continue to monitor both areas, despite their removal from the list.

While there is still much room for improvement, ratings across seven areas increased this year and GAO said its findings have ultimately informed agency-specific and governmentwide solutions.

“Today’s report serves as a reminder that taxpayers deserve better from their government,” Jordan said in a statement following the report’s release. “Congress must continue robust oversight of the areas highlighted in the report to further prevent fraud, waste, and mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.”

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