Gene L. Dodaro’s nearly 49 years with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) give him the big picture of a vexing and longstanding problem with the federal sector.
Now the GAO, the nonpartisan agency of Congress that is the government’s chief watchdog, is looking ahead.
In a new report, “Trends Affecting Government and Society”, it identifies a dozen areas of greatest national concern where “GAO can be better prepared to respond.” That includes, Dodaro said, preparing a federal workforce to meet those challenges.
Some themes connect trends, demonstrating their interdependence. While “racial and ethnic disparities” is its own section, this theme, along with socioeconomic status, is cited in seven of the 12 categories. Distrust of government, sometimes fueled by misinformation and lies from above, is found in three cases.
With colorful and attractive diagrams and layouts that provide more energy than usual for typically dry federal documents, the agency presented these trends, along with caveats and uncertainties:
- National Security: Global and National Threats“The United States is not adequately 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 home front… Racially, ethnically and ideologically motivated domestic violent extremism poses the deadliest and most persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland and must be addressed. 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 “major trust funds supporting programs healthcare and social security will run out in 15 years or less.
- Prepare for catastrophic biological incidents: “Progress in building trust in government and science and overcoming health care disparities can be uneven and difficult… The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the devastating effects of biological incidents, but future incidents could be even more catastrophic and disruptive.
- Racial and ethnic disparities: “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56% of the population is expected to be of a race other than white by 2060…The effects of these disparities are closely related and far-reaching…According to some estimates, the disparities Racial and Ethnic Health Disorders in the United States health care system amount to an estimated $93 billion in excess medical care costs due to the poor health of racial and ethnic minorities…Tackling disparities racial and ethnic lines will be a persistent challenge facing the country and its policy makers.
- Science, technology and economics of innovation: “[T]there 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 develop a strong, talented, and diverse, and seek ways to ensure that the benefits of American innovation flow more widely 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 courts will balance the preservation of civil liberties with the use surveillance technology to identify and counter illicit activities”.
- Changes to how and where we work: “More than half of low-wage workers currently in declining occupations will have to move to occupations in higher wage brackets that require different skills. Data indicates that automation and the effects of the pandemic disproportionately affect certain groups, including women, blacks, Hispanics, low-income workers and the less educated… By 2025, automation could displace 85 million jobs while creating 97 million new ones requiring different skills. ”
- The future of global supply chains: “Foreign adversaries are trying to exploit global supply chains to obtain technologies critical to national defense…Uncertainty caused by U.S.-China trade relations may increase product costs by forcing companies to maintain higher inventories or seek alternative sources of supply to avoid customs duties.”
- E-learning and technology in education: “Many students do not have reliable internet access to participate online, especially low-income students and students of color… The extent of pandemic-related learning loss, in particular for students with previously unmet academic needs – often students of color and low-income students – is not yet fully known…If these students do not re-engage in learning, it could negatively affect the skill levels of the national workforce and exacerbate disparities in access to education and employment opportunities.
- Evolving health technologies: “[I]Innovations merge biology and technology to restore and enhance human capabilities…advanced prostheses that can allow users to feel their prostheses…3D printed organs to potentially reduce the incidence of transplant rejection…smartphone apps that can identify mental health crises…virtual reality that can be used to treat pain.
- Sustainable development: “[R]requires thinking in new ways about the links between sometimes competing social, environmental and economic priorities… Anxiety over misinformation has increased and trust in institutions has declined, which can affect citizens’ trust in climate and other scientific information they receive.
- Changing space environment: “The number of active satellites in orbit has more than tripled in the past five years… Current law may create gaps in oversight authority for non-traditional space activities, such as the safety of space tourism passengers. … The increased use of space has many benefits, but may go beyond US policies and approaches.
Dodaro provided two examples showing the importance of being proactive in government. He said the GAO identified cybersecurity as a high-risk area across government in 1997, the first time an issue was so designated. This remains a high risk issue.
“In 2015, we identified the need to develop an aviation safety plan for communicable diseases,” he said. “It wasn’t done.” Five years later, the pandemic has wiped out most air travel.
These examples and the new trends identified by the GAO provide lessons for Uncle Sam – if he’s willing to learn.