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Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks' Remarks at the DoD-GAO High-Risk Summit (As Delivered)

Great, thank you very much Mike [Donley], and good afternoon everyone. On behalf of Secretary Austin and all of DoD, welcome to the Pentagon — or close to it. 

I do want to give a special thanks and welcome to the GAO Managing Directors who are here with us today, both Cathy Berrick and Timothy DiNapoli, who’ve taken time to come across the river here and be with us today — even in the midst of preparing the 2023 High Risk Series report. And thanks to all of the colleagues you have with you who are joining virtually.

We really appreciate here at the Department the ability to meet together, to have this collaborative, communicative, productive relationship that’s existed between you and your DoD counterparts. We really, deeply value it. 

Thanks also to Mike, the Director of Administration and Management. He’s both our host today but also the Department’s Performance Improvement Officer. So Mike, thanks for everything you do, and for pulling together this Summit today. 

And thanks very much to all the DoD Acquisition, Finance, IT, and Management community representatives, who have day-to-day responsibility for the High-Risk Areas that are going to be under discussion today. 

We are no strangers here at DoD to hosting a lot of meetings and summits, to use that term — from annual consultations with our allies, to National Security Council meetings with interagency partners.

And this summit, I really want to emphasize, is just as important as any of those. Because it’s about our two core responsibilities here at the Department of Defense — it’s about providing for our warfighters, and making sure we are looking out for the interests of the taxpayers who make everything we do possible, to ensure their safety and security. 

So that concept — of being accountable to the public that we serve and defend, and ensuring we’re delivering to our own forces — it sets us apart from our competitors on the world stage. 

It’s part of who we are as a democracy. And it’s a reflection of our values. And it’s a reason why like-minded nations want to be allies and partners with us.

And, it’s why every two years, for the last three decades, GAO’s High-Risk program has identified and focused attention on government programs and operations that are particularly vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse, or that need broad transformation or reform to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges. 

So as one of the leaders of this Department, but also as a taxpayer and citizen of the republic, I’m really grateful for everything that the teams here are doing together. 

And I know Secretary Austin shares that view — he’s down at Fort Bragg today, welcoming home the 18th Airborne Corps from their deployment to Europe — and I know he really wanted me to extend his gratitude. 

Defense reform is really important to us, because it has a clear impact on our ability to realize the Secretary’s top three priorities: Defend the Nation, Take Care of Our People, and Succeed Through Teamwork.

Whether it’s transforming and modernizing our business processes and systems, or getting better at financial and contract management, or continuously improving our weapon system acquisition — we’re committed to getting this Department where it needs to go. 

And over the last 21 months, we’ve moved out deliberately on governance, data, and other performance improvements in ways that we hope you’ll see today, as you discuss the Department’s progress and its future planned actions in each of the five DoD-specific High-Risk Areas.

One of the ways we’ve been moving forward, is by providing greater senior-level attention and oversight, which we know is something that you have been concerned about. 

Our ultimate goal is to show that DoD has made sufficient progress in the areas that you’ll discuss, to remove them from the High Risk Series listing. 

Several factors of course go into that. On the DoD part, we need to demonstrate that we have the right people and resources to resolve the risks that you’ve identified.

And we need to show that we’re executing solid corrective action plans for those risks, and that we’re monitoring the effectiveness and implementation progress of those plans.  

And we have to be able to provide a strong DoD and GAO leadership commitment and support for resolving high-risk areas. 

I’ll remind all my DoD colleagues that while it may seem difficult and daunting to achieve removal from the High-Risk list, it’s also absolutely possible. 

Just last year, GAO removed “DoD Support Infrastructure” from the High-Risk Series report, after it was deemed a high-risk area for 24 years.

So we’re headed in the right direction. We’re making progress. We now have to continue to build on that progress. 

There’s a lot of work to be done. But our job at DoD, as I like to say in various forums, is to be problem-solvers. And if there’s a group that can do it, it’s this team. 

Audit recommendation follow-up is an integral part of good management, and a shared responsibility of both DoD management and GAO auditors. And we’re fortunate to have such, as I said at the beginning, a positive, collaborative relationship between DoD and GAO. 

But I want to be clear about what the Secretary and I expect from the DoD team:

From the outset, we must make every effort to incorporate GAO recommendations as improvements in how we manage the Department.

And then, we must be clear in communicating to the GAO when we’ve met key milestones, and when we’ve completed — or when we’ve gone as far as we’re able to go — with implementing their recommendations and other identified actions. 

On that note, DoD has taken several concrete steps to seize opportunities identified in GAO’s audit reporting. 

For example, we’re leveraging the statutory authorities of the DoD Performance Improvement Officer to ensure that these efforts align with our new Strategic Management Plan and Performance Improvement Framework, consistent with our new National Defense Strategy — which we just released in unclassified form last week.

We’ve also elevated the Audit Management Division, realigning it under the Director of Administration and Management — who as I noted, in Mike, is dual-hatted as our Performance Improvement Officer — in order to build greater synergy with the latter portfolio.

And, we’re giving GAO audit recommendation implementation efforts greater visibility within the Defense Business Council. That council is the principal supporting tier of governance to me and the DMAG for oversight, monitoring, and reporting on the implementation of the Secretary’s Defense Management and Performance Improvement agendas. And it will monitor the compliance of DoD Components through executive analytics. 

So, knowing you have a very ambitious agenda here, I will close where I began, just with gratitude: for the productive working relationship that we have established here, and for everything everyone in this room is doing to make sure the Department of Defense is better. 

To our friends at GAO: thank you for clearly articulating what improvement actions you want to see for each High-Risk Area. When you give us good, specific sets of targets to aim for, it raises our likelihood of shared success.

And to my DoD colleagues: thank you in advance for taking what you hear today and moving it into action. I know you share — and I’m sure you’re used to hearing it from me — I know you share my and the Secretary’s commitment to implementing corrective actions for GAO recommendations, particularly those identified in the High-Risk and Priority areas. 

And together, we’re going to act decisively on the improvement opportunities presented by GAO’s body of work across the Department.

So with that, let me hand it back over to Mike, and just give you my thanks. Thank you all. Have a great one.