GAO highlights trends federal government should prepare to confront in new report

Gene L. Dodaro’s nearly 49 years with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) gives him an eagle-eye view of a vexing, long-standing problem with the federal sector.

“We’ve been too reactive to major events,” Dodaro, whose title is comptroller general of the United States, said in an interview. “Once we focus on something, we do a good job. But in many cases, we focus too late.”

Now, GAO, the nonpartisan congressional agency that is the government’s primary watchdog, is looking to the future.

In a new report, “Trends Affecting Government and Society,” it identifies a dozen areas of greatest national concern where “GAO can better be prepared to respond.” That includes, Dodaro said, preparing a federal workforce to meet those challenges.

Certain themes link the trends, demonstrating their interconnectedness. While “racial and ethnic disparities” is its own section, that theme, along with socioeconomic status, is cited in seven of the 12 categories. Mistrust in government, sometimes fueled by misinformation and lies from high places, is found in three.

With colorful, engaging diagrams and layouts that provide more energy than usual for generally dry federal documents, the agency presented these trends, along with warnings and uncertainties:

  • National Security: Global and Domestic Threats: “The U.S. is not sufficiently prepared for threats from events such as pandemics and climate change, or threats from technologies … The war in Ukraine underscores the potential for threats that challenge the international order and jeopardize global security” … “On the domestic front … racial, ethnic, and ideologically motivated domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland and must be treated as a national priority.”
  • Fiscal Sustainability and Debt: “The federal government faces numerous fiscal exposures not fully accounted for … such as public health emergencies, global military conflicts, natural disasters, and unexpected economic conditions,” and “key trust funds supporting health care and Social Security programs will be depleted in 15 years or less.”
  • Preparing for Catastrophic Biological Incidents: “Progress to enhance trust in government and science and overcome disparities in health care may be uneven and challenging … The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the devastating effects of biological incidents, yet future incidents could be even more catastrophic and disruptive.”
  • Racial and Ethnic Disparities: “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56 percent of the population is projected to be a race other than White by 2060 … The effects of these disparities are intertwined and far-reaching … By some estimates, racial and ethnic disparities in the U.S. health care system amount to approximately $93 billion in excess medical care costs due to poorer health for racial and ethnic minorities … Addressing racial and ethnic disparities will be a persistent challenge facing the country and its policymakers.”
  • Science, Technology, and the Innovation Economy: “[T]here is a critical need to modernize aspects of the U.S. intellectual property and technology transfer systems … To maintain global leadership and competitiveness, the U.S. must invest in and grow a strong, talented, and diverse STEM workforce, and seek ways to ensure that the benefits of U.S. innovation flow more broadly to the American people.”
  • Security Implications for an Increasingly Digital World: “Extremist groups have increasingly used social media to promote their ideologies … It is unclear how law enforcement, legislatures, and the courts will balance preserving civil liberties against using monitoring technology to identify and counter illicit activities.”
  • Changes to How and Where We Work: “More than half the low-wage workers currently in declining occupations will need to shift to occupations in higher wage brackets that require different skills. Data indicate that automation and the effects of the pandemic disproportionately affect certain groups, including women, Black, Hispanic, low-income, and less educated workers … By 2025, automation could displace 85 million jobs while creating 97 million new ones requiring different skills.”
  • Future of Global Supply Chains: “Foreign adversaries attempt to exploit global supply chains to obtain technologies critical to national defense … The uncertainty caused by U.S.-Chinese trade relations may raise products’ costs by forcing firms to maintain higher inventories or seek alternative sourcing to avoid tariffs.”
  • Online Learning and Technology in Education: “Many students lack reliable access to the internet to participate online, especially low-income students and students of color … The extent of pandemic-related learning loss, especially for students with already-unmet academic needs — often students of color and low-income students — is not yet fully known … If these students do not reengage with learning, it could adversely affect the skill levels of the nation’s workforce and exacerbate disparities in access to educational and employment opportunities.”
  • Evolving Health Technologies: “[I]nnovations merge biology and technology to restore and enhance human abilities … advanced prosthetics that may allow users to feel their prosthetic devices … 3D printed organs to potentially reduce the incidence of transplant rejection … smartphone applications that may identify mental health crises … virtual reality that may be used to treat pain.”
  • Sustainable Development: “[R]equires thinking in a new way about the links across sometimes competing social, environmental, and economic priorities … Anxiety over misinformation has increased and trust in institutions has declined, which can affect citizens’ confidence in climate and other science information they receive.”
  • Evolving Space Environment: “The number of active satellites in orbit has more than tripled over the past five years … Current law may create gaps in oversight authority for non-traditional space activities, such as space-tourism passenger safety. … Increased use of space has wide-ranging benefits but may outpace U.S. policies and approaches.”

Dodaro provided two examples showing the importance of being proactive in government. He said GAO identified cybersecurity as a high-risk area across the entire government in 1997, the first time any issue was so designated. It remains a high-risk problem.

“In 2015, we identified the need to develop an airline safety plan for communicable diseases,” he said. “It wasn’t done.” Five years later, the pandemic grounded most air travel.

Those examples and the new trends GAO identified provide lessons for Uncle Sam — if he’s willing to learn.