Of all the buzzwords applied to how the federal government works, accountability is having a moment.

With issues at the VA and resulting from the OPM unlikely to go away before Jan. 20, the National Academy of Public Administration gathered a panel on April 5 to discuss how the next administration can best assure accountable operations without alienating federal employees.

Comptroller General, and GAO chief, Gene Dodaro said that while there are many accountability aspects that stretch across the federal sphere, there are some that should be addressed now.

"I chose four enablers where I think it is very necessary for the government to improve its performance, to strengthen accountability and to better manage the programs and activities across the spectrum of federal government activities," he said.

Dodaro's four enablers included:

  • Leveraging Technology

"Most of the federal government's programs and activities are heavily dependent on information technology," Dodaro said.

The GAO chief said that the government spends $80 billion a year on IT, but inconsistent applications of the best practices for technology investments have hampered effective IT development, with three-quarters of the annual funding going to maintain legacy systems.

"There are consistent breakdowns in the lack of disciplined management of IT investments across government," he said. "As a result, the federal government is not getting the return it needs to get in order to improve its performance and its interactions with the public using new technology."

Dodaro said Office of Management and Budget programs like TechStat, PortfolioStat and IT dashboards, alongside legislation like FITARA, have helped provide CIOs with more power to strengthen IT systems.

GAO added IT acquisitions and operations to its High-Risk list in 2015, when only 23 percent of its 737 recommendations over the past five years had been fully implemented.

Dodaro said since then, the Obama administration had made a concerted effort to address the issue, with 35 percent of the recommendations now in place.

  • Managing Finances

"For the foreseeable future, it's going to be a difficult budget environment," Dodaro said. "There are a couple of big issues that I am concerned about."

One of those is improper payments. Dodaro said that there have been $1 trillion in erroneous payments made that cumulatively since 2003 and they have increased 36 percent last year from what they were in 2013.

"This is a pervasive problem," he said. "The last estimate was over 120 different federal programs at 22 agencies across the government. These are staggering amounts, but they are not even complete estimates."

The other problem is a tax gap that the GAO chief said costs the government $385 billion a year. With only 83 percent in voluntary tax compliance, the nation is leaving money on the table that could solve budget issues without legislation.

Another issue is making sure that the federal government knows what it's spending. Last year, the Departments of Defense, Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture were not able to be audited due to the complexity of their books, which accounts for 17 percent of the government's annual costs. Dodaro said advancements had been made on the issue, but would need to be fully addressed for fiscal accountability.

  • Adapting to change

The GAO chief said the government must improve its performance in at least three areas where change is developing at a rapid pace: globalization, regulation of housing finance and the risk exposure of climate change.

The evolution of global markets has impacted how the government regulates industries like the medical products and food sectors, and Dodaro said feds have to catch up.

"Over 80 percent of the ingredients for prescription drugs right now come from foreign sources," he said. "The FDA was set up to oversee domestic production in the United States, not a global marketplace."

To adapt, Dodaro said the government has to update its regulations to address the growing market of imports.

Reforming the housing sector is of importance as well, as lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac remain under federal conservatorship from eight years after the financial crisis.

Finally, the government's exposure to climate change was recently added to the GAO's High-Risk list for the impacts it could have to federal property and disaster insurances programs, including greater borrowing to cover costs.

"Major disasters are not budgeted for the federal government's budgets," Dodaro said.

  • Securing talent

With a large portion of the federal workforce heading toward retirement, it's integral for the government to attract new workers to fill the gap, the GAO chief said.

"The last time we looked at this in 2014, about a third of the government's workforce would be eligible for retirement in 2019. At some agencies, it was over 40 percent," he said. "This presents both challenges and opportunities."

One challenge is a skills shortage in critical areas like cybersecurity and acquisition.

"It puts a premium on workforce planning and having the strategies necessary to attract and retain the type of people that are needed," Dodaro said.

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