2020 Management Excellence

J. Christopher Mihm

Provided Congress and the executive branch with nonpartisan, fact-based information and recommendations to curb tens of billions of dollars in fraud, waste and abuse, and improve federal agency performance.

Listen to Chris Mihm discuss his work:

Every two years, the Government Accountability Office produces a comprehensive list of federal programs that are at high risk because of fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement, or in need of broad-based transformation, work that has led to significant government reforms and hundreds of billions of dollars in savings.  

At the forefront of this expansive initiative is Chris Mihm, managing director for strategic issues at GAO, who oversees the work of hundreds of analysts and other staff to develop the High-Risk List on topics ranging from national defense and health care to cybersecurity, the environment and food safety. 

“I’ve been working at the GAO for 47 years, and Chris is one of the most successful, effective senior executives we’ve ever had,” said Gene Dodaro, the GAO’s comptroller general. “Under his leadership, the high-risk program has proven to be an essential tool for congressional oversight, setting legislative agendas and focusing executive branch attention on critical challenges.” 

Dodaro said each high-risk area provides nonpartisan, fact-based information so Congress and the executive branch can take steps to manage risk and correct serious problems, and “Mihm’s leadership of the program has yielded impressive results.”  

The 2019 High-Risk List overseen by Mihm, for example, cited the problems plaguing veterans’ health care, the poor management of programs that serve Native Americans, the government’s $464 billion in environmental liabilities, numerous Defense Department challenges, and issues with the 2020 decennial census, along with recommendations for reform. 

Additionally, a number of programs highlighted under Mihm’s direction sufficiently improved and were removed from the list. In 2019, successful reforms led to the removal of the DOD’s supply chain management system from the list along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which closed serious gaps in its management of weather satellite data. 

In recent years, the GAO also determined that the intelligence community had established effective mechanisms for sharing and managing terrorism-related information and could be removed from the list. It also found the IRS made substantial progress correcting information technology weaknesses after being cited for major deficiencies. 

During the 14 years Mihm has managed the high-risk program, more than $520 billion in savings and other financial benefits for taxpayers have been generated, along with a host of management, legislative and regulatory changes, according to GAO estimates. 

Donald Kettl, a professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas, and an expert on the federal government, praised Mihm for his “visionary” outlook. 

“Chris has this sharp analytical way of finding key issues hiding inside complex policy problems,” Kettl said. “He understands that you can make all the policy you want, but unless it’s executed well, we’re not going to have a government that performs. His career is devoted to that proposition.” 

In addition, Mihm is recognized as leader on a wide range of public management issues, along with domestic and foreign affairs.  

“Chris is a serious thought leader and not just on the domestic level, but also on the international level,” he said. “He provides incredible government-wide leadership and is an inclusive consensus builder, always treating people with respect,” said David Van Slyke, policy expert and dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.  

Orice Williams, the GAO’s managing director of congressional relations, said Mihm brings strong management skills to the job. “Chris leaves room for his team members to grow and become leaders in their own right,” she said. “He has built networks and connections across government and is a very effective communicator.”  

Early in his career, Mihm led the GAO’s work under Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, known as GPRA, to identify ways to increase the availability and use of results-oriented performance information by congressional and executive branch decision-makers.  

Congress later used his work to craft the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010, a law that required the Office of Management and Budget to coordinate with agencies to develop cross-agency priority goals. Since then, agencies have repeatedly turned to Mihm for ways to strengthen collaborative efforts on complex, cross-cutting issues.  

One of Mihm’s most important achievements, according to Dodaro, has been his work on improving the efficiency of the census dating back to the 1990s. 

In addition, Mihm and his strategic issues team consulted recently with the Trump administration and Congress to tackle a multibillion-dollar tax gap—the difference between what is legally owed by taxpayers and what is collected. Colleagues said Mihm worked with Congress so the IRS can gain access to critical information needed for the collection of legally owed taxes, resulting in huge financial benefits for the American people. 

Although Mihm is steeped in the details of public policy, his focus has always been on serving the American people, he said. 

“We need to keep in mind that every dollar we spend was first earned by someone else and provided to government through their taxes,” Mihm said. “We owe it to them to get a return on their investment. On every project I ask, ‘what’s the benefit, financial or otherwise, that we’re going to give to the American people?’ ”