June 7, 2022 Update: GAO has designated the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system as High Risk due to long-standing challenges in meeting the needs of unemployed workers and mitigating financial loss, which worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The way the current program is designed and variations in how states administer UI have contributed to declining worker access and disparities in benefit distribution.
In addition, historic numbers of Americans lost their jobs during the pandemic. Although Congress created four temporary UI programs to support workers during this time, unprecedented demand for benefits and the need to quickly implement the new programs challenged states and increased risks of improper payments, including from fraud.
March 3, 2022 Update: We often get asked what agencies can do to get off the High Risk List. In this report, we discuss cases in which agencies and Congress took actions to improve programs and yield financial and other benefits. In some of these cases, we narrowed the scope of the High Risk areas or removed them from the list because of these improvements.
January 27, 2022 Update: Our 9th comprehensive CARES Act report identified the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Leadership and Coordination of Public Health Emergencies as High Risk due to significant and long-standing issues. For more than a decade, we’ve found persistent deficiencies in HHS’s leadership role preparing for and responding to public health emergencies, including COVID-19 and other infectious diseases—such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic, Zika, and Ebola—and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes.
HHS has also faced challenges establishing clear roles and responsibilities and providing clear and consistent communication to key partners and the public. (We previously identified this topic as an emerging issue in our 2021 High Risk report.)
The High Risk List is a list of federal programs and operations that are vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or need transformation. The list is issued every 2 years at the start of each new session of Congress and has led to more than $575 billion in financial benefits to the federal government over the past 15 years.
Our January 2021 High Risk List contains 36 High Risk areas. We’ve added two areas to the list since 2019:
- Emergency Loans for Small Businesses. The Small Business Administration has administered hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and advances to help small businesses recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19. While these loans have helped many small businesses, greater attention and oversight of these funds is needed due to the risks of fraud.
- National Efforts to Prevent, Respond to, and Recover from Drug Misuse. National rates of drug misuse have increased over the past two decades, and have had devastating effects. We’ve found several challenges in the federal government’s response to this issue—such as a need for greater leadership and coordination of the national effort, strategic guidance that fulfills all statutory requirements, and more effective implementation and monitoring.
Seven areas have improved since 2019, and we removed one of those areas, DOD Support Infrastructure Management due to DOD’s progress on this issue. For instance, DOD has more efficiently utilized leased space, reduced its infrastructure footprint, and reduced costs. Additionally, 20 areas showed little change.
However, 5 areas got worse:
- U.S. Postal Service financial viability
- The decennial census
- Ensuring the nation’s cybersecurity
- Strategic human capital management
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s process for assessing and controlling toxic chemicals
In addition, we identified two emerging issues in this report:
- HHS’s Leadership and Coordination of Public Health Emergencies
- Strengthening Management of the Federal Prison System.
These two issues are not yet on our High Risk List, but our planned work in these areas may lead us to designate these issues as high risk in the future.
When was each High Risk area added to the list? This table (PDF, 1 page) shows the year that each area on GAO’s 2021 High Risk List was designated High Risk.
In 1990, we began a program to report on government operations that we identified as “high risk.” Since then, generally coinciding with the start of each new Congress, we have reported on the status of progress to address high-risk areas and update the High Risk List.
Overall, our High Risk List has served to identify and help resolve serious weaknesses in areas that involve substantial resources and provide critical services to the public. Since our program began, the government has taken high-risk problems seriously and has made long-needed progress toward correcting them. In a number of cases, progress has been sufficient for us to remove the High Risk designation.