Home / Government / Articles / Which government programs are considered wasteful or inefficient?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent agency responsible for providing unbiased, fact-based information to save taxpayers money and run the government more efficiently.

Since 1990, the GAO has produced a high risk list identifying government programs it considers vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, and in need of reform.

These programs manage substantial public resources and provide critical services, and can affect public service.

Which government programs are vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement? 

As of March 2023, the high risk list identified 38 government programs requiring reform. These programs address issues ranging from managing federal property to national cybersecurity, rising drug abuse or other pressing issues.

Take the US unemployment insurance system. It lost over $60 billion in fraudulent payments during the COVID-19 pandemic. The GAO added it, rather than the Labor Department which heads the program, to the high risk list in 2022.

Embed on your website

Each GAO report identifies the government agencies responsible for overseeing these issues. The list serves as an appeal for Congress to prioritize critically weak federal programs.

How does the GAO identify wasteful government programs?

The GAO evaluates various factors before classifying a federal program as a high risk. Most entries on the high risk list name key policy areas where the federal government falls short, rather than specific government agencies.

The program must pose a risk to public health or safety, national security, economic growth, or citizens’ rights, among other things.

A recent example is the GAO’s addition of “nation efforts to prevent, respond to, and recover from drug misuse” to the list, citing the lack of coordinated federal response to combat rising drug misuse and overdose rates. This presents a risk to the public health and economic resilience of communities nationwide, creating the need for some form of government intervention.

Programs that risk losing at least $1 billion can also be classified as high risk. This financial risk can stem from lost revenue, assets losing value, assets being stolen, lost, wasted, or damaged. The GAO also considers other costs, such as legal issues and improper payments, when assessing a program’s risks.

Which government programs are considered the most wasteful?

Several programs have remained on the high risk list since the 1990s, indicating a lack of Congressional action.

Government responsibilities such as enforcing tax laws through the Internal Revenue Service, protecting the cybersecurity of the nation, and administering Medicare are all currently on the list.

According to the GAO, these programs have been wasting government resources in some shape or form for decades without correction.


The Department of Defense has several programs on the list, indicating excessive spending, inefficient management, and vulnerability to waste, fraud, and abuse.

Take the example of the Department of Defense's contract management program. This program oversees agreements between the government and private companies or civilians to provide essential military supplies and services.

Despite being on the list since 1992 and experiencing multiple instances of fraud, the program spent more than $400 billion on contracts in 2020, accounting for over 60% of the Defense Department's budget.

To get a full picture of government structure and finances, read more about how the US collects and spends its money, and get the data directly in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter.

Last updated
June 7, 2022