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GAO Adds SBA Emergency Loans and Federal Response to Illegal Drug Use to "High Risk List" of Challenges Across the Federal Government

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

WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 2, 2021)—The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) today issued its latest High Risk List, which includes 36 areas across the federal government vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement or needing broad-based transformation.  Two areas were added to the current list—emergency loans for small businesses and the federal response to drug misuse—and improvements were seen in seven areas, with one making enough progress to warrant its removal.  At the same time, 20 areas showed little change and five regressed.

“GAO’s High Risk List charts a course on how the federal government can both improve performance and save money. Over the years, with sustained attention from Congress and Executive Branch officials, a number of troubled programs and activities have improved enough to be dropped from the list,” said Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO. “At the same time, the current list makes clear how much work remains to overcome a number of serious challenges facing the federal government. Addressing them has the potential to save significant amounts of money and improve services that are vital to the wellbeing of the American people.”  The High Risk List is updated every two years at the start of each new Congress.

Emergency loans for small businesses has been added to the 2021 High Risk List. The Small Business Administration has provided hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of loans and advances to help small businesses recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the loans have greatly aided many small businesses, potential for fraud and significant program integrity risks underscore the need for greater oversight and management attention.

Another area being added is the federal response to drug misuse. National rates of drug misuse have been on the rise, a trend that has seen numerous deaths, as well as a range of harmful social and economic effects. From 2018 to 2019, the overdose death rate increased from 20.7 to 21.6 deaths per 100,000 population, similar to the peak of 21.7 deaths per 100,000 population in 2017. GAO cites shortcomings in the federal government’s response, including the need for stronger leadership and coordination of the national effort, strategic guidance that fulfills all statutory requirements, and more effective implementation and monitoring.

The five High Risk areas that have regressed since 2019 are:

  • 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

GAO is removing DOD’s support infrastructure management from the List. Among other things, DOD has more efficiently utilized leased space, reduced its infrastructure footprint, improved its use of installation agreements, and reduced base support costs, reportedly by millions of dollars. Seven areas have improved since 2019. 

The six other areas on the current list that have shown progress are:

  • Managing federal real property
  • Financial management at the Department of Defense (DOD)
  • The government-wide personnel security clearance process
  • The Department of Energy’s contract and project management for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Office of Environmental Management
  • NASA acquisition management
  • Managing risks and improving health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs

In addition, GAO narrowed the scope of three high-risk areas—federal real property, DOD contract management, and management of federal oil and gas resources—due to progress in addressing past weaknesses.  It noted the General Services Administration’s reduced reliance on costly leases and improved monitoring, DOD’s strides in rebuilding its acquisition workforce, and the Department of the Interior's implementation of reforms to improve offshore oil and gas oversight.

The list uses five criteria to assess progress on high-risk areas: leadership commitment, agency capacity, an action plan, monitoring efforts, and demonstrated progress. Only 14 of the high-risk areas, or fewer than half, have met one or more of the five criteria for removal from the High Risk List.

GAO’s High Risk List has helped form the basis for both agency-specific and government-wide solutions. There were 14 areas on the High Risk List when it was first launched in 1990.  Over time, there have been 50 additions, 27 removals, 2 areas that were consolidated, and one area separated out from an existing area. Financial benefits to the federal government due to progress in addressing high-risk areas over the past 15 years (FY 2006 through FY 2020) totaled nearly $575 billion or an average of about $38 billion per year.

The entire 2021 High Risk List is available on GAO’s website.  For more information, contact Chuck Young, Managing Director of Public Affairs, at (202) 512-4800.


The Government Accountability Office, known as the investigative arm of Congress, is an independent, nonpartisan agency that exists to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities. GAO also works to improve the performance of the federal government and ensure its accountability to the American people. The agency examines the use of public funds; evaluates federal programs and policies; and provides analyses, recommendations, and other assistance to help Congress make informed oversight, policy, and funding decisions. GAO provides Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonideological, fair, and balanced. GAO’s commitment to good government is reflected in its core values of accountability, integrity, and reliability.

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