Gifts that Keep on Giving—and Saving

Photo of Christmas tree and U.S. CapitolIt’s the holiday season and gift-giving is in full swing. So, today we’re taking a look back at how our work for Congress keeps giving—and saving.

Did you know we saved the government over $75 billion in FY18? That’s a return of about $124 for every dollar invested in us! Read on for more of our work that keeps on giving long after the holidays are over.

Making a High Risk List, checking it twice

Image of GAO's High Risk List logoSince the early 90s, coinciding with the start of each new Congress, we’ve released our biennial list of programs and operations that are “high risk” due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation. Our most recent High Risk update was in February 2017. There are now 35 High Risk areas, ranging from Enforcement of Tax Laws to Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety, to most recently, Management of Federal Programs That Serve Tribes and Their Members and the Government-Wide Personnel Security Clearance Process.

With the federal government’s $4.1 trillion in outlays funding a broad array of programs and operations in FY18, solutions to high-risk problems potentially save billions of dollars, improve service to the public, and strengthen government performance and accountability. Over the past decade, progress to address our High Risk list has accounted for over $288 billion in such savings. Our 2019 High Risk list will be released this coming February.

‘Tis the Tax Filing Season

Photo of IRS form 1040For more than 30 years, we have reported annually on how well IRS provided service to taxpayers and processed their tax returns during the filing season. Along the way, we have made dozens of recommendations leading to savings of hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars and improved taxpayer service.

  • Saving Taxpayer Dollars: Tax credits offer benefits to many taxpayers, but figuring out if you are eligible to claim those credits can be difficult. Sometimes taxpayers make mistakes. Based on our filing season work, Congress has passed legislation to help IRS better catch such errors and save taxpayer dollars. For example, in 2015, the Congress passed legislation that should enable IRS to verify taxpayers’ claims for higher education tax benefits by using information from educational institutions—which has saved $290 million already and should yield an additional $504 million in financial benefits through fiscal year 2021.

A happy and (fiscally) healthy new year

Each year we issue an update on the nation’s fiscal health. Our report discusses significant changes to the nation’s fiscal condition during the prior fiscal year, long-term simulations of the federal debt, and fiscal risks placing additional pressure on the federal budget. We also identify steps that federal agencies can take to improve things, such as eliminating duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in federal programs. Our new fiscal health report will be issued in early 2019.

Check out our February 2018 video explaining the nation’s financial condition and future, and ways to improve it.

Agencies’ Wish Lists

Our three “Quick Look” reports on major acquisition programs at NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense include quick, graphics-rich, 1- or 2-page analyses of the most expensive items on those agencies’ wish lists, including big toys like submarines, fighter jets, and space rockets. And our Quick Looks keep giving—we issue updates each year. Last year, we gave DHS a candy cane for strengthening its portfolio management policies, but we told DOD it had better watch out as new programs begin to enter the production phase where costs are most likely to grow.

Photos of DOD, NASA, and DHS major acquisition programs

Our 2019 Quick Looks will continue to track the cost, progress, and performance of projects like NASA’s plan to return to human space flight, the Coast Guard’s effort to build heavy polar ice breakers, DOD’s Ford Class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter—the most expensive and ambitious weapon acquisition program in U.S. military history.

The man with the (money) bag

Photo of Department of Treasury buildingWe report yearly on the status of unwinding the government’s assistance to the financial sector during the 2007–2009 financial crisis. Just over 10 years ago, Congress responded to turmoil in the financial markets by creating the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Through TARP, the Treasury Department disbursed a total of $440 billion—including $245 billion in capital investments to banks—to help stabilize the financial system, restore economic growth, and mitigate foreclosures. Our work not only helps provide transparency and accountability of TARP, but more importantly, we saw the implementation of a GAO recommendation that resulted in billions of cost savings for the federal government. We also recently blogged about our past reports examining how much government money actually went to the banks.

We also annually assess the impact of financial services regulations, including those put in place since the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act. Since the financial crisis, federal financial regulators have issued hundreds of rules to implement reforms intended to strengthen the financial services industry. Our blog post highlighted our recent work on how regulators have been meeting requirements to maintain a level playing field for small financial entities. Previous annual reports have covered other topics including how well agencies coordinated implementing rules to govern the financial sector and the extent to which the regulations affected the largest U.S. financial institutions.

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VA’s Suicide Prevention Media Outreach Campaign (video)

Photo showing dog tags and American flagAfter military service, many veterans struggle with mental health conditions and other hardships that put them at higher risk for suicide. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that an average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Preventing veteran suicide is one of VA’s highest priorities.

Since 2010, VA has conducted national outreach to raise awareness about suicide prevention resources for veterans. Watch our new video and read our report exploring trends in VA’s outreach activities and ways to improve its oversight and evaluation of the program.

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Are the Navy and Marine Corps Ready for the Future? (video)

Photo showing Navy shipsThe Department of Defense has faced conflict, budget uncertainty, and reductions in force structure, making it less prepared to handle its operations. Since 2015, we’ve made 45 recommendations to help the Navy and Marine Corps prepare for the future.

We recently testified on the two services’ readiness challenges, including personnel shortfalls, maintenance delays, and aging aircraft. Fully addressing these challenges will require years of sustained attention. Watch our video and read more in our report on rebuilding Navy and Marine Corps readiness.

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Airline Passenger Protections

airplane Are you one of the millions of passengers flying over the holidays? Do you know your rights if your flight is cancelled or overbooked, or if your checked bag doesn’t arrive when you do?

Today’s WatchBlog explores airline consumer protection issues and the Department of Transportation’s actions to protect passengers. Listen to our podcast and read on for more.


Have Airline Services Improved?

Airlines’ treatment of passengers has come under scrutiny following several high-profile incidents, including the forcible removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight. Despite such incidents, Transportation’s data on denied boardings and mishandled baggage suggests that service has generally improved since 2008, particularly since 2014.

Figure Showing Measures of Airlines' Service, 2008 through 2017

At the same time, however, we found that the rate of passenger complaints that Transportation received increased about 10 percent from 2008 to 2017 for airlines we reviewed.  These complaints were most commonly about flight delays and cancellations, though in recent years, Transportation has increasingly received more complaints about disability issues, oversold flights, and fares. But complaints that Transportation received only account for a small percentage of total complaints—officials estimated that airlines receive 50 complaints for every 1 complaint lodged with the agency.

How does the Department of Transportation protect consumers?

Transportation can issue and enforce consumer protection requirements. For example, Transportation recently published new rules or expanded existing rules by restricting long ground delays, increasing compensation for passengers who are denied boarding, and requiring certain airlines to post information on their websites about their fees and on-time performance.

To help airlines understand and comply with these and other consumer protection requirements, Transportation conducts 5 key activities:

  • Issuing guidance and consulting with airlines.
  • Processing passenger complaints. Staff received and responded to more than 18,000 passenger complaints in 2017.
  • Inspecting airlines at airline headquarters and airports to assess their compliance with consumer protection requirements. Staff conducted airline compliance inspections at 18 airports in 2017.
  • Investigating potential consumer protection violations. Staff initiated 287 investigations of airlines in 2017.
  • Enforcing airlines’ compliance with consumer protection requirements through warning letters, consent orders, and financial penalties. Although Transportation levied nearly $18 million in financial penalties on selected airlines from 2008 to 2017, the airlines paid out only about half of that amount. The remaining amounts were either credited to airlines for service improvements for passengers, or potential future payments.

Transportation also has an aviation consumer protection website, which provides tips for avoiding common travel problems and information on topics like unaccompanied minors and family seating.

While Transportation has taken steps to protect airline passengers, we identified a number of additional actions it can take to ensure airlines’ compliance with consumer protections and to educate consumers. These include developing performance measures for compliance activities, improving procedures to more consistently categorize complaints, and seeking feedback directly from consumers about what they know about their rights.

To learn more, check out our full report

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Andrew Von Ah at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact
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Snapshots from the Audit Trail

Our Watchdogs track the way agencies spend federal money—and take snapshots along the way as physical evidence on the audit trail.

Today’s WatchBlog highlights some of the best photos from our audit teams as they fanned out across the country and overseas to follow the money.

TSA officials at a Cuban airport

In August 2016, the first scheduled commercial flight in over 50 years made the trip between the United States and Cuba and new agreements allowed daily scheduled flights between the two countries. We reported on how TSA ensures the security of U.S.-bound aircraft from Cuba.

Figure Showing Transportation Security Administration Inspector Preparing to Board an Aircraft at Frank Pais Airport in Holguin, Cuba

Marine debris in the Florida Keys

In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the California wildfires created unprecedented demand for federal disaster help. Congress provided at least $120 billion in supplemental funding for these disasters. We reported that the timing and scale of the disaster damages nationwide caused shortages in available debris removal contractors and delays in removing debris.

Figure Showing Marine Debris in Florida Keys Canal Following Hurricane Irma in 2017

Capital project needs at HBCUs

We identified significant capital project needs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to ensure well-maintained, safe, and functional facilities. This photo depicts a public HBCU we visited where much of their building space had suffered damage from severe weather and other causes.

Figure Showing Capital Project Needs at an Historically Black College and University

Wildlife products seized in Miami

The illegal wildlife trade—estimated to be worth $7 billion to $23 billion annually—is pushing protected and endangered animal species to the brink of extinction. The United States and Asia are key sources of demand for a variety of wildlife.

Figure Showing Wildlife Products Seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Port of Miami

Safe handling of synthetic opioids

Federal agencies have developed guidance for safely handling synthetic opioids. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s guidance notes that if a first responder encounters a situation where the scene is highly contaminated from fentanyl (a substance 100 times stronger than morphine), then he or she needs to wear a specialized full-body suit with a self-contained breathing apparatus, such as this one.

Figure Showing an Example of a Specialized Full-Body Suit Used to Respond to Scenes of Gross Fentanyl Contamination

Volume of paperwork

Throughout the life of a major disaster declaration, jurisdictions, including tribes, are required to maintain paperwork to document the recovery projects. This photo shows an example of the volume of paperwork needed to support and close out the recovery projects associated with a landslide in Washington State, according to the tribal and state officials involved.

Figure Showing the Amount of Paperwork Submitted to FEMA to Close a Major Disaster Declaration Following a Landslide in Washington, 2013

Baby turtles on the move

In our previous work on DOD adaptation to climate change impacts, we noted how these impacts may have caused a protected turtle species to nest on a part of the beach where it previously had not nested, limiting where the military can train. This photo illustrates this type of impact.

Figure Showing Movement of Sea Turtles Across a Department of Defense Beach

What does “smaller than 5 millimeters” look like?

Microbeads are plastic pieces smaller than 5 millimeters that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. These tiny particles may pass through some water filtration systems and end up in the oceans and the Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life.

Figure Showing Microbeads Smaller than Five Millimeters in Diameter

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Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

We’ve been busy podcasting! And if you’re not subscribed on iTunes or our RSS feed, you’re missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on some of our recent podcasts.

Rural Hospital Closures: From 2013-2017, 64 hospitals in rural areas in the United States closed their doors. These closures mean limited access to quality healthcare for many Americans. Listen to James Cosgrove, a director in our Health Care team, talk about trends in rural hospital closures—including how financial stress, geography, and increased competition from other providers have affected these closures.


Photo of a Hospital Entrance Sign

2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: The damage caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the California wildfires in 2017 led to $120 billion in supplemental funding from Congress. Hear Chris Currie, a director on our Homeland Security and Justice team, talk about the federal response to these disasters and key recovery challenges.


Photo of Chris Currie, a GAO Homeland Security and Justice Director

Adolescent and Young Adult Substance Use: Around 1 in 6 adolescents and more than 1 out of 3 young adults used illicit substances in 2016. Most young adults who develop substance use disorders begin using in adolescence. Hear John Dicken, a director on our Health Care team, talk about federal grants for substance use prevention, treatment, and recovery among adolescents and young adults.

Photo of a Bag of Pills Exchanging Hands

Afghanistan Security Equipment:  The United States has spent nearly $84 billion in Afghan security since 2002. That investment includes equipment, as well as the training necessary to operate and maintain that equipment. Listen to Jessica Farb, a director in our International Affairs and Trade team, discuss the Afghan Security Forces’ ability to operate and sustain the equipment they bought.


Photo of U.S.-Purchased Equipment for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces

Weapons Systems Cybersecurity: DOD plans to spend around $1.66 trillion on its portfolio of major weapons systems—including weapons that are more computerized and networked than ever before. But as technology advances, so does the threat posed by cyber-attacks. Tune in to Cristina Chaplain, a director on our Contracting and National Security Acquisitions team, as she discusses the state of cybersecurity for DOD’s weapon systems.


Embedded Software and Information Technology Systems Are Pervasive in Weapon Systems (Represented via Fictitious Weapon System for Classification Reasons)

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CIO Management Responsibilities Remain a Challenge for Most Agencies

photo of person using a computer

Federal agencies planned to spend more than $96 billion on information technology (IT) in fiscal year 2018. IT systems are critical to the health, economy, and security of the nation. But the government faces longstanding problems in IT management. For example, agencies have struggled to protect themselves against threats from hackers, terrorists, insiders, and other nations.

Congress established the federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) position to serve as an agency focal point to address IT challenges. Today’s WatchBlog describes shortcomings and challenges in carrying out federal CIO responsibilities.

Are CIOs fulfilling their responsibilities?

Federal laws and guidance assign agency CIOs with key responsibilities for effectively managing IT in six areas:

  • leadership and accountability
  • strategic planning
  • workforce
  • budgeting
  • investment management
  • information security

These responsibilities should be documented in agencies’ IT management policies. But we found most of the 24 major agencies did not fully define the role of their CIOs for any of the six key areas.

Figure 1: Extent to Which 24 Agencies’ Policies Addressed the Role of Their Chief Information Officers, Presented from Most Addressed to Least Addressed Area

In addition, the 24 CIOs that we surveyed acknowledged that they were not always very effective in implementing the six IT management areas. If agencies don’t fully define the role of CIOs in their policies, they cannot effectively address long-standing IT management challenges.

Figure 2: Extent to Which Chief Information Officers Reported Effective Implementation of Six Responsibility Areas, Presented from Most Effective to Least Effective AreaFactors helping CIOs better manage IT

The 24 agency CIOs we surveyed frequently cited a number of factors as important in enhancing their ability to effectively manage IT. CIOs reported that clear guidance, legal authority, and their position in the agency’s hierarchy are factors that helped them carry out their responsibilities. For example, one CIO attributed much of the agency’s success in managing IT to good relationships that the CIO had with the agency head and that official’s deputy. Another CIO indicated that support from the head of the agency had enabled that official to cancel a troubled project and reallocate that funding to critical information security improvements on another effort.

Figure 5: Factors Commonly Identified by at Least Half of the Selected Chief Information Officers (CIO) as Enabling Their Effective Management of Information Technology (IT), Presented from Most Enabling to Least Enabling FactorIT management challenges

Half of the 24 agency CIOs we surveyed reported management challenges like the process for hiring and recruiting IT personnel, financial resources, and the availability of staff resources. We recommended that the Office of Management and Budget update its guidance to fully address these challenges.

Figure 6: Factors Commonly Identified by at Least Half of the Selected Chief Information Officers (CIO) as Challenges to Their Effective Management of Information Technology (IT), Presented from Most Challenging to Least Challenging Factor

Further compounding the management challenges is the lack of consistent leadership in the CIO position. We noted previously that CIOs and former agency IT executives believed it was necessary for a CIO to stay in office for 3 to 5 years to be effective and 5 to 7 years to fully implement major change initiatives in large public sector organizations. However, the median tenure for permanent and acting agency CIOs who had completed their time in office was about 20 months between 2012 and 2017.

How can effectiveness of CIOs’ management responsibilities be improved?

We made 27 recommendations to federal agencies to improve the effectiveness of CIOs’ implementation of their responsibilities for each of the six IT management areas.

We intend to follow up on our recommendations and monitor agencies’ progress.

To learn more, check out our full report.

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Marking 40 Years with the Civil Service Reform Act

Photo Showing Two Federal Employees Shaking HandsLast month marked a milestone in the history of the country’s federal personnel system. Forty years ago on October 13, the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) was landmark legislation and it continues to serve as the foundation for much of the present personnel system governing federal workers. Today’s WatchBlog explores what we have found about its implementation through the years and opportunities that lie ahead.

What is the Civil Service Reform Act?

The CSRA significantly changed how the federal government manages its workforce.  For example, it replaced the Civil Service Commission with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). It also enacted nine merit system principles designed to improve the quality of public service by, among other actions, recruiting employees from all segments of society, providing equal pay for work of equal value, and retaining and separating employees on the basis of their performance. Further, the CSRA also established a Senior Executive Service so government would have competent executives.

Shortly after it was enacted, we reported on OPM’s progress implementing the CSRA and noted that despite reforms, the civil service system was still viewed as burdensome, outdated, overregulated, and inflexible. Over the years, we have recommended numerous actions OPM should take to strengthen federal personnel management.

What Are More Recent Issues?

Fast forward to today: we believe that key personnel functions still need to be modernized. Since CSRA was enacted, the federal workforce has changed to include many more white collar jobs requiring complex analytical thinking skills. In light of these changes, in 2008 we reported on additional efforts needed in human capital planning, diversity management, and OPM leadership.

In 2014, we reported that the General Schedule (GS)—the government’s classification system for defining and organizing federal positions—had not kept pace with the government’s evolving requirements. Modernizing it would help the government have the right people at the right place, at the right time, and in the right numbers to address complex national challenges.

What’s Needed in the Future?

Since 2014, we have made a number of priority recommendations to OPM that address broader government-wide reforms. For example, we recommended that the government use prior studies and lessons learned to examine ways to make the GS system’s design and implementation more consistent with the attributes of a modern, effective classification system.

Meanwhile, federal agencies can take some actions on their own to improve how they manage their workforce. Implementing our leading practices in human capital management is a good place to start. We have also made recommendations to address and close skills gaps within specific federal agencies as well across the federal government.

Recently, we highlighted how agencies already have the authority to make changes but often are not taking advantage of that authority. In 2016, we found that many federal agencies were using relatively few available hiring authorities. A hiring authority is the law, executive order, or regulation that allows an agency to hire a person into the federal civil service. Agencies used 105 hiring authorities in fiscal year 2014, but relied on 20 of them for nearly all new hires.

Figure Showing Agencies Relied on 20 Hiring Authorities for Nearly all New Hires in Fiscal Year 2014

Earlier this year, we blogged about how federal agencies may also provide special payments in certain circumstances to hire people with needed critical skills. Our report found that in 2016, federal managers were seldom using these special payments, such as retention and relocation incentives or student loan repayments.

Figure Showing CHCO Agencies Used Special Payment Authorities for a Small Number of Their Employees, Fiscal Year 2016

Another change that would support the federal workforce would be to reexamine the way that federal employees are hired and paid. Last year, we testified that it is important for agencies to make better use of the tools already at their disposal, such as using more flexibility in their hiring practices. Acting on our findings could significantly improve the government’s personnel management system and help agencies better carry out their missions.

We will continue to monitor both broader government-wide efforts at implementing CSRA as well as to present opportunities for agencies to improve their human capital management to ensure they are consistent with the spirit of the CSRA.

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Performance and Accountability in FY 2018

Title Page of Performance and Accountability Report Fiscal Year 2018We saved the government over $75 billion—a return of about $124 for every dollar invested in us—in FY 2018. Our annual Performance and Accountability Report details our work supporting the Congress and helping improve the performance and accountability of the federal government.

This year’s report highlights the money we’ve helped the government save, how we’ve helped improve federal operations, and our congressional testimonies.

Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Saving taxpayer money

We achieved cost savings in federal agencies and programs by making recommendations to prevent payment errors, reduce fraud, and make better use of federal funds.

Image Showing a Look at our FY 2018 Accomplishments

For instance, our work:

  • Helped Medicaid revise spending limits for its demonstration projects (saving $36.8 billion)
  • Reduced improper payments at the Department of Health and Human Services (saving $1.9 billion)
  • Identified unobligated balances in DOD’s Military Personnel accounts (saving $849 million)

Improving government operations

We also helped make 1,294 other improvements to federal programs and operations. For example, our work helped:

  • Prompt Congress to direct the Veterans Health Administration to research the overmedication of veterans that led to deaths, suicides, and mental health disorders
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection better protect U.S. manufacturers and consumers from the risks of counterfeit products sold online
  • The Department of Justice and the Office of National Drug Control Policy develop results-oriented measures, such as reductions in overdose deaths, to help them assess progress in combatting the nation’s opioid epidemic
  • The Transportation Security Administration to begin to update and improve its risk assessment and strategy to secure airports and control access to restricted areas
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency to pilot a data-sharing process with states to identify potentially duplicative disaster assistance payments
  • Congress to pass legislation to strengthen the nation’s data on elder abuse by requiring annual data collection and reporting

Advising Congress

Our officials were also asked to testify in front of Congress nearly 100 times on a wide range of issues. For instance, we testified on federal efforts to assist railroads with implementing positive train control, addressing Native American youth in the justice system, key challenges for the 2020 Census, and improving the transfer and monitoring of care for unaccompanied children who enter the United States with no lawful immigration status.

Photo of Susan Fleming, Director, Physical Infrastructure Team Testifying on Positive Train Control

To learn more, check out our FY 2018 Performance and Accountability Report.

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Colleges and Universities Rely Heavily on Contingent Faculty

Photo of Books, Mortarboard Cap, and DiplomaIt’s American Education Week and we’re reflecting on the changing employment landscape in colleges and universities.

Not so long ago, for many, a faculty career in higher education came with expectations of steady income and almost unparalleled job security. While continuous employment, or tenure, remains a valued feature of higher education institutions, we’re seeing that more and more faculty are employed outside of the tenure track as “contingent faculty,” either part- or full-time. Depending on the school, these faculty members may be referred to as instructors, lecturers, or adjunct or visiting professors, among other terms.

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