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The 2021 High Risk List—Which Programs Are At High Risk of Fraud, Waste, and Abuse? (videos)

Posted on March 02, 2021

7 Areas Improved; Five Got Worse; 20 Showed Little Change

Today, we post our latest High Risk List, which includes 36 areas across the federal government vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement or needing broad-based transformation. Our list includes 2 new high risk areas—emergency loans for small businesses and the federal response to drug misuse. We also saw improvements in 7 areas on our previous (2019) list, and removed 1 area from the list. At the same time, 20 areas showed little change and 5 regressed.

Today’s WatchBlog highlights these changes.

What is the High Risk List?

Every 2 years, at the start of each new session of Congress, we issue an update to our High Risk List—a list of programs and operations that are ‘high risk’ due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformation.  The federal government has accrued nearly $575 billion in financial benefits over the past 15 years by addressing the areas on this list. In fact, we recorded $225 billion in financial benefits just since our last update in 2019.

Our 2021 High Risk List includes 2 new areas:

  • 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.

2021 High Risk Update: Emergency Loans for Small Businesses



In March, Congress expanded eligibility for Economic Injury Disaster Loans in an effort to quickly help small businesses that were adversely affected by COVID-19. The Small Business Administration has since made or guaranteed about 15 million loans and grants totaling over $700 billion. GAO's Bill Shear discusses the risk of fraud and why we added these loans to our 2021 High Risk List.


  • National Efforts to Prevent, Respond to, and Recover from Drug Misuse. National rates of drug misuse have increased over the past 2 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.


What got better? What got worse?

In addition to adding 2 new areas described above to our list, we saw improvements in 7 areas, with 1 area getting removed from our list.

We removed DOD’s support infrastructure management from our list because DOD has made significant progress in addressing this issue. Among other things, DOD has more efficiently utilized leased space, reduced its infrastructure footprint, and reduced base support costs by millions of dollars.

The other 6 areas that improved included:

However, while some areas improved, 20 areas showed little change and 5 regressed. Here are the 5 areas that regressed:

COVID-19’s impacts on the High Risk List

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has particularly affected several areas on the High Risk List, including:

  • Enforcement of Tax Laws—Similarly, the IRS’s enforcement operations and the availability of services were also affected by COVID-19; and that fraudulent schemes related to COVID-19 relief payments and tax credits may affect IRS capacity to address identity theft refund fraud.
  • Decennial Census—The decennial census provides vital data for the nation, including information that affects funding for hospitals, schools, and roads. While the 2020 Census kicked off in January, field data collection efforts were paused for 3 months starting in mid-March 2020 because of the pandemic. We found that compressing the time frame to collect data and process responses has increased the risk of compromised data quality.
  • Protecting Public Health through Enhanced Oversight of Medical Products —The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspects medical products before they are available to the American public. However, inspections of foreign drug manufacturing establishments decreased, in part, due to lack of staff available to conduct inspections.
  • Improving and Modernizing Federal Disability Programs—An estimated 13% of Americans had a disability in 2018. However, federal disability programs struggle to meet their needs. COVID-19 added to this issue. We reported in November 2020 that the agency experienced challenges in processing disability claims because of, for example, lack of technology available for teleworking staff and difficulty scheduling and conducting hearings by phone.

How are issues removed from our list?

Addressing the issues on our High Risk List can save billions of dollars, improve services to the public, and strengthen government performance and accountability.

We use 5 criteria to determine whether an agency has made enough progress on an issue to warrant its removal from the High Risk List:

(1) Leadership commitment

(2) Agency capacity

(3) An action plan

(4) Monitoring efforts

(5) Demonstrated progress

Check out the full 2021 High Risk List to learn more. You can also listen to Chris Mihm, Managing Director of our Strategic Issues Team, discuss some highlights from our latest update by checking out our podcast.


GAO Contacts

J. Christopher Mihm
J. Christopher Mihm
Managing Director

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