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Last Build Date: Wed, 28 Sep 2016 16:30:16 -0400

 



GAO-16-884T, VA Real Property: VA Should Better Justify Its Need to Lease Major Medical Facilities, September 28, 2016

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leases major medical facilities to benefit from shorter time frames to open a facility and to attain flexibility to relocate. These factors may help VA to meet its needs, such as improving facilities’ compliance with standards and increasing veterans’ access to care and services. Unlike owned facilities that can be difficult to dispose of, VA must vacate leased facilities at the end of the lease term, an approach that can allow VA to relocate to space better aligned with its needs. Leases executed under a delegation of authority from the General Services Administration (GSA) can be obligated on an annual basis, whereas owned facilities require full upfront funding that can be difficult to obtain. VA cited flexibility to move as a justification in all 51 of its proposals for these leases since 2015. VA does not, however, assess and provide information to decision makers on how it has benefited from this flexibility. Without transparency on these benefits, VA and congressional decision makers may lack information to understand the need for these leases. GAO and the Office of Management and Budget have reported on the importance of assessing the results of capital decisions in making future decisions. VA’s cost-estimating procedures for leasing major medical facilities generally align with GAO’s 12 cost-estimating best practice steps and recent changes in VA’s approach may improve the quality of VA’s estimates. GAO’s review of cost data for these leases since 2006 found that actual costs often varied more than 15 percent above or below the estimates included in VA’s proposals for these leases, often due to project design changes. In 2016, VA introduced a design guide for leased medical facilities that delineates VA and federal requirements, such as security and sustainability standards, that may reduce the risk that a project, and its cost, change from what the VA proposed. VA also initiated a lessons-learned effort to evaluate the factors that contribute to differences between actual lease costs and those included in proposals. The success of these steps will depend on how quickly and effectively VA implements them. Why GAO Did This Study VA operates the largest health care network in the United States, with over 2,700 health care sites, including hospitals and outpatient facilities. However, many facilities are outdated, and VA estimates that its capital needs will require up to $63 billion over the next 10 years. In recent years, VA has increasingly leased its facilities, including major medical facilities. This testimony discusses (1) the factors that account for VA’s decisions to lease major medical facilities and (2) the extent to which VA’s cost-estimating process for leasing these facilities reflects best practices. This testimony is based on GAO’s June 2016 report (GAO-16-619). For that report, GAO analyzed agency documents, VA data on major medical facilities’ leases, compared VA’s cost-estimating procedures to best practices in GAO’s Cost Guide, and interviewed VA officials. What GAO Recommends In its June 2016 report, GAO recommended that VA assess the benefits of leasing major medical facilities and use the information in VA’s annual capital plans. VA concurred with GAO’s recommendation. For more information, contact Rebecca Shea at (202) 512-2834 or shear@gao.gov.



GAO-16-616, NIH Biomedical Research: Agencies Involved in the Indirect Cost Rate-Setting Process Need to Improve Controls, September 07, 2016

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found Research organizations that apply for National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding participate in an indirect cost rate-setting process, which involves submitting a rate proposal; reviewing the proposal and having it audited by a third-party agency at the cognizant agency's request; and finalizing (negotiating) the rate for the organization. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have designated three primary cognizant agencies to set indirect cost rates for federal financial assistance funded by NIH: HHS's Cost Allocation Services (CAS), NIH's Division of Financial Advisory Services (NIH-DFAS), and the Department of Defense's (DOD) Office of Naval Research (ONR). These cognizant agencies are responsible for ensuring that negotiated indirect cost rates comply with OMB guidance and the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), as applicable. GAO found that while the three agencies had designed controls for setting indirect cost rates, deficiencies in the design of some of these controls could result in the waste of federal resources. The deficiencies GAO identified are as follows: None of the three agencies has updated its internal guidance to reflect current OMB guidance or changes in agency requirements, such as documentation requirements. ONR relies on audits by the Defense Contract Audit Agency to ensure the adequacy and compliance of indirect cost proposals that it processes, but ONR has not included acceptable time frames in its internal guidance for when these audits are to be completed or what steps are to be taken when audits result in qualified opinions or when a prior audit opinion is rescinded. All three cognizant agencies' internal guidance lacks detailed instructions to supervisors on their review responsibilities over the indirect cost rate process. CAS and ONR have not developed internal guidance addressing differences in negotiating indirect cost rates with certain types of research organizations, such as universities and hospitals. ONR and NIH-DFAS have not developed mechanisms to track key milestones for the indirect cost rate-setting process. If these deficiencies are not addressed, there is an increased risk that these cognizant agencies may not properly and consistently negotiate indirect cost rates and that the rates negotiated may not comply with applicable federal regulations. Thus, there is an increased risk that the indirect cost rates used to reimburse NIH research organizations will include costs that are not allowable, allocable, and reasonable, and may result in wasted federal resources. Why GAO Did This Study NIH spent over $23 billion to support extramural research in 2015, including $6.3 billion for indirect costs, which are costs not directly attributable to a specific research project or function, such as utilities expenses, for grants and cooperative agreements. NIH relies on designated cognizant agencies to design adequate internal controls over the processes for negotiating indirect cost rates with research organizations. Once set, these rates must be accepted by NIH and all federal awarding agencies. GAO was asked to review the internal controls for overseeing the validity of indirect cost rates for NIH's research organizations. This report examines the extent to which the three primary cognizant agencies (CAS, NIH-DFAS, and ONR) that set indirect cost rates on NIH's behalf have designed internal controls to mitigate the potential for fraud, waste, and abuse in the indirect cost rate-setting process. GAO reviewed OMB guidance, the FAR, and the cognizant agencies' internal guidance on indirect cost rate negotiation; interviewed staff at the cognizant agencies; and reviewed a nongeneralizable sample of negotiation case files to obtain an understanding of the design of controls. What GAO Recommends GAO is making 12 recommendations to improve controls over their indirect cost rate process. HHS concurred with GAO's 7 recommendations to CAS and NIH-DFA[...]



GAO-16-827, Federal Fisheries Management: Additional Actions Could Advance Efforts to Incorporate Climate Information into Management Decisions, September 28, 2016

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and eight Regional Fishery Management Councils (Council) have general information on the types of effects climate change is likely to have on federally managed fish stocks but limited information on the magnitude and timing of effects for specific stocks. They also face several challenges to better understand these effects, based on GAO's analysis of NMFS and Council questionnaire responses, NMFS and Council documentation, and interviews with NMFS and Council officials. For example, NMFS officials said that northern rock sole may adapt to warming ocean temperatures more easily than other fish species, but it is unknown how such temperatures may affect the timing of the fish's life cycle events, such as spawning. NMFS and Council officials identified several challenges to better understand potential climate change effects on fish stocks, including determining whether a change in a stock's abundance or distribution is the result of climate change or other factors, such as overfishing in the case of Atlantic cod. Atlantic Cod NMFS developed a climate science strategy in 2015 to help increase the use of climate information in fisheries management. The strategy lays out a national framework to be implemented by NMFS' regions but does not provide specific guidance on how climate information should be incorporated into the fisheries management process. An NMFS official said that developing such guidance has not been an agency priority, but as knowledge on climate change progresses there is a more pressing need to incorporate climate information into fisheries management decision making. Developing such guidance would align with federal standards for internal control and may help NMFS ensure consistency in how its regions and the Councils factor climate-related risks into fisheries management. In addition, NMFS has not developed agency-wide performance measures to track progress toward the strategy's overall objectives, a leading practice. NMFS officials said they are waiting to finalize regional action plans for implementing the strategy before determining whether such measures may be necessary. GAO reviewed the proposed measures in NMFS' draft regional action plans and found that they aligned with some key attributes of successful performance measures. But, most of the measures did not contain other key attributes, such as measurable targets. By incorporating key attributes when developing performance measures and assessing whether agency-wide measures may also be needed, NMFS may be in a better position to determine the extent to which the objectives of its strategy overall are being achieved. Why GAO Did This Study NMFS and the Councils manage commercial and recreational marine fisheries that are critical to the nation's economy. The effects of climate change may pose risks to these fisheries that could have economic consequences for the fishing industry and coastal communities, according to the 2014 Third National Climate Assessment. GAO was asked to review federal efforts to address the effects of climate change on federal fisheries. This report examines (1) information NMFS and the Councils have about the existing and anticipated effects of climate change on federally managed fish stocks and challenges to better understand these effects and (2) efforts NMFS has taken to help it and the Councils incorporate climate information into fisheries management. GAO analyzed responses to its questionnaire from all NMFS regions and the Councils, analyzed seven nongeneralizable fish species selected to reflect variation in the potential effects of climate change, reviewed relevant documentation, and interviewed NMFS and Council officials. What GAO Recommends GAO recommends that NMFS (1) develop guidance on incorporating climate information into the fisheries management process and (2) incorporate key attributes of successful performance measures in the regional action plans[...]



GAO-16-834, Climate Change: Information on NOAA's Support for States' Marine Coastal Ecosystem Resilience Efforts, September 28, 2016

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is taking a variety of actions to support states' efforts to make their marine coastal ecosystems more resilient to climate change, and states generally view NOAA's actions as positive steps. The Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) provides a foundation for managing these ecosystems and partnering with states to work towards the agency's goals of achieving resilient coastal communities and healthy coastal ecosystems, according to NOAA officials. Through the federal-state partnership established under the CZMA, GAO found that NOAA has taken actions, including: Financial incentives. NOAA has targeted some of its financial incentives for activities aimed at addressing the impacts of climate change. For example, NOAA designated coastal hazards—physical threats to life and property, such as sea level rise—as the focus of CZMA competitive grants. States competed for a total of $1.5 million in grants in fiscal year 2016. Officials from all 25 state programs that GAO interviewed said funding provided by NOAA has been critical for planning projects related to ecosystem resilience, but also expressed concern that the amount of funding is insufficient to address states' needs in implementing projects. For instance, officials from 15 state programs further indicated that coastal zone management grants have been a primary source of funding from NOAA, but that they generally cannot be used to purchase land or for construction projects, activities states identified as important for improving coastal resilience. Technical assistance. NOAA has provided assistance largely through technical information, guidance, and training to help states better understand and address the potential impacts of climate change on marine coastal ecosystems. For example, NOAA helped develop an interactive digital tool to simulate different sea level rise scenarios. NOAA also developed guidance to help identify ways ecosystems may be used to enhance the resilience of coastal areas, such as using natural shorelines to buffer the effects of erosion. In addition, NOAA developed training on topics such assessing the vulnerability of coastal areas. State managers GAO interviewed had generally positive views of the technical assistance provided by NOAA. For example, officials from all 25 state programs said that the technical information NOAA provides has generally helped them incorporate climate information into their state programs. National Estuarine Research Reserve System. NOAA, in partnership with coastal states, manages 25 marine-based estuary reserves, in part, to study natural and man-made changes to estuaries (bodies of water usually found where rivers meet the sea), including the potential impacts of climate change. For example, in 2014, one state used its research reserve to study and map marsh migration patterns across the state's coastline to determine how these ecosystems may respond to rising sea levels. Officials from 19 of the 25 state programs said that work carried out through the research reserves plays an important role in furthering their understanding of how climate change may affect the structure and function of estuarine ecosystems. Why GAO Did This Study Coastal areas—home to over half of the U.S. population—are increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic damage from floods and other extreme weather events that are expected to become more common and intense, according to the 2014 Third National Climate Assessment. This assessment further indicated that less acute effects from changes in the climate, including sea level rise, could also have significant long-term impacts on the people and property along coastal states. Marine coastal ecosystems—including wetlands and marshes—can play an important role in strengthening coastal communities' resilience to the impacts of climate change, such as protecting eroding shorelines from se[...]



GAO-16-757, China: U.S. Universities in China Emphasize Academic Freedom but Face Internet Censorship and Other Challenges, August 29, 2016

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The 12 U.S. universities GAO reviewed generally reported receiving support for their institutions in China from Chinese government entities and universities, with limited funding from U.S. government agencies and other donors. Universities reported contributions from Chinese provincial and local governments and from partner universities for land, building construction, and use of campus facilities. Fewer than half of the universities reported receiving federal funding. Almost all of the U.S. universities said their programs in China generated net revenue for the university or had a neutral impact on its budget. Universities' agreements with their Chinese partners or other policies that GAO reviewed generally include language protecting academic freedom or indicating their institution in China would adhere to U.S. standards. About half of universities GAO reviewed address access to information, such as providing faculty and students with access to physical or online libraries, though few universities' agreements and policies include language protecting Internet access. About half of the universities' policies include language indicating protection of at least one other key freedom—speech, assembly, or religion. University members generally indicated that they experienced academic freedom, but they also indicated that Internet censorship and other factors presented constraints. Administrators said they generally controlled curriculum content, and faculty and students said they could teach or study what they chose. However, fewer than half of the universities GAO reviewed have uncensored Internet access. At several universities that lacked uncensored Internet access, students and faculty told us that, as a result, they sometimes faced challenges teaching, conducting research, and completing coursework. Administrators, faculty, and students also cited examples of self-censorship, where certain sensitive political topics—such as Tiananmen Square or China's relationship with Taiwan—were avoided in class, and of constraints faced by Chinese students in particular. Universities approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education as having independent legal status share characteristics—such as campuses located away from their Chinese university partner's campus and extensive student life programs—that may be correlated with greater academic freedom and other key freedoms. Internet Access Varies at Different U.S. Universities in China Why GAO Did This Study In its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015, the Department of State (State) concluded that academic freedom, a longstanding concern in China, had recently worsened. At the same time, the number of U.S. universities establishing degree-granting institutions in partnership with Chinese universities—teaching predominantly Chinese students—has increased. While universities have noted that these institutions offer benefits, some academics and others have raised questions as to whether faculty, students, and staff may face restricted academic freedom and other constraints. This report reviews (1) funding and other support provided to U.S. universities to operate in China; (2) the treatment of academic and other key freedoms in arrangements between U.S. universities and their Chinese partners; and (3) the experience of academic and other key freedoms by faculty, students, and staff at selected U.S. universities in China. GAO reviewed 12 U.S. universities that have established degree-granting institutions in partnership with Chinese universities; interviewed and obtained university documents and questionnaire responses; interviewed faculty and students; and visited the campuses of 5 institutions selected on the basis of their location, student demographics, date of establishment, and other factors. GAO also interviewed officials and obtained information from the Departments of Education (Education) and State. GAO make[...]



GAO-16-727, International Trade: Government Procurement Agreements Contain Similar Provisions, but Market Access Commitments Vary, September 27, 2016

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found GAO found that the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA) and selected U.S. free trade agreements' (FTA) government procurement chapters that GAO reviewed generally have similarities in text, and commitments, potentially because parties negotiated multiple agreements concurrently (see fig.). Each of the agreements outlines the general method for conducting government procurement, including provisions relating to transparency, procurement procedures, and criteria for procurement decisions. However, differences exist, partially because later agreements reflect new technology. Timeline of the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Government Procurement and Selected Free Trade Agreements (FTA) Negotiations   The 2014 revised GPA generally provides more comprehensive market access than the selected FTAs GAO reviewed. Partners define the degree to which they will open their procurement markets to suppliers from other countries, known as their market access commitments. These commitments outline the entities covered by the agreements, for example, at the central and subcentral government levels (for the United States, these include agencies of the federal government and states), and for what some agreements term “other entities” (which, for the United States, includes utilities). The United States covers 85 central government entities under the revised GPA, but only 53 entities under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Similarly, the United States covers 37 states under its GPA commitments and from no states to 30 in the FTAs GAO reviewed. While all the top five GPA parties GAO reviewed cover some subcentral government entities, Canada, Mexico, and South Korea do not have a subcentral government entity coverage schedule in their FTA commitments. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), parties have certain procurements that they deem sensitive and do not want to open to foreign suppliers, including for social or policy reason. In the agreements GAO reviewed, the U.S.'s trading partners often exclude agriculture, military support, and motor vehicles from their market access commitments. Why GAO Did This Study The United States and other countries have made commitments under the WTO's GPA and FTAs that open their government procurement to foreign suppliers. Under these commitments, parties agree to a procedural framework for government procurement with provisions on issues such as transparency and nondiscrimination. These commitments have potentially opened an estimated $4.4 trillion government procurement market to international firms, providing numerous new opportunities for American businesses in foreign markets and for foreign businesses to compete for U.S. government contracts. As part of your larger request for information on U.S. participation in international procurement agreements, GAO reviewed commitments made by the United States and trading partners in selected international procurement agreements. This report provides information on (1) the provisions and (2) the market access schedules of the selected international procurement agreements. GAO reviewed the provisions and market access schedules across six agreements involving the largest government procurement markets to identify common features and variations. The agreements are the 1994 GPA and the 2014 revised GPA, NAFTA, the South Korea-FTA, the Colombia-FTA, and the Australia-FTA. GAO analyzed WTO and U.S. documents pertaining to the GPA and U.S. FTAs and interviewed USTR and the Department of Commerce agency officials in Washington, D.C. What GAO Recommends GAO is not making recommendations in this report. For more information, contact Kimberly M. Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or GianopoulosK@gao.gov.



GAO-16-861R, Foreign Assistance: Selected Agencies' Monitoring and Evaluation Policies Generally Address Leading Practices, September 27, 2016

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found All the agencies we reviewed, except DOD, have established M&E policies that apply to their major foreign assistance programs. State, USAID, and MCC have agency-wide policies for foreign assistance M&E, while the civilian non-foreign-affairs agencies have policies relevant to their major foreign assistance programs—for USDA, the Foreign Agriculture Service’s food aid programs, and for HHS, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). As of August 1, 2016, DOD has not issued M&E policies for its humanitarian and security assistance programs, but DOD is in the process of doing so, according to DOD officials. The existing foreign assistance M&E policies we reviewed generally address the leading M&E practices we identified. For example, all agencies except DOD have monitoring policies that require the development, collection, analysis, and reporting of data on performance indicators. These policies are intended to help ensure measurement of project implementation and promote timely analysis and reporting of results that could identify needed course corrections. In addition, all agencies except DOD have policies that require documenting an evaluation plan or agenda, assuring evaluation quality and independent evaluators, allowing a choice of methods, and disseminating evaluation findings/results, all of which help ensure that key stakeholders have access to quality information for informed management decisions. Two of the five agencies with existing policies, State and HHS, addressed all 28 practices. We did not discern any meaningful pattern among the five agencies in those practices that their policies did not address. Why GAO Did This Study The U.S. government plans to spend approximately $35 billion on foreign assistance in 2017 to improve the lives and health of millions living in poverty, support democracy, enhance global security, and achieve other U.S. foreign policy goals. Managing these funds effectively requires reliable monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems. We were asked to review foreign assistance M&E policies in the U.S. government. In this report, we determined to what extent (1) agencies administering the most U.S foreign assistance have developed M&E policies and (2) existing M&E policies are consistent with leading practices. We included six agencies in our review—the Departments of State, Agriculture (USDA), Defense (DOD), and Health and Human Services (HHS) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global HIV and TB; the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). What GAO Recommends GAO is not making any recommendations in this report. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-6991 or farbj@gao.gov.



GAO-16-716R, Delegated Leasing Authority: Review of Selected Leases and Information on GSA's Changes to Delegation Procedures, September 27, 2016

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found GAO reviewed leases executed by four federal agencies using a delegation of authority from the General Services Administration (GSA) and determined that 42 of 45 leases complied with a selected set of requirements. The remaining 3 leases, all from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), met 4 of the 5 requirements.  GAO raised questions about the scope of the contracting officers’ authorization to execute the leases. GAO asked FWS to provide clarifying information but GAO did not receive the information it would need to come to a legal determination. GSA has made organizational, policy, and data system changes to address problems previously identified in 2007 by GAO and GSA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) with GSA’s management and oversight of delegations of authority. For example, GSA centralized its management and oversight of delegations of leasing authority and introduced process management software. GSA also updated guidance in 2007 and 2014 that introduced new requirements for agencies using delegations of authority. For example, for certain types of delegations of 2,500 or more square feet, agencies must obtain GSA approval and provide lease documentation to GSA. Why GAO Did This Study Federal real property management is on GAO’s high-risk list due to complex and long-standing issues, including an overreliance on costly leasing.  Federal agencies spend billions annually to lease many types of properties, ranging from office space and laboratories to aircraft hangars and boat docks.  A delegation of leasing authority allows an agency to lease property directly by performing the functions that GSA would otherwise do.  However, there are previously identified problems with these delegations of leasing authority.  For example, in 2007 GAO and GSA’s OIG reported on problems with GSA’s management and oversight of these and other types of delegations. GAO was asked to review the roles of GSA and federal agencies in managing federal real property. This report discusses the (1) the extent to which, for selected leases, agencies complied with certain requirements of GSA’s delegated leasing authority and (2) how GSA has addressed problems identified in 2007 by GAO and the GSA OIG regarding GSA’s management and oversight of delegations of leasing authority.  GAO reviewed 45 leases from four selected case-study agencies: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the United States Department of Agriculture; FWS in the Department of the Interior; and the National Institutes of Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. The reviewed leases were executed under a delegation of authority from fiscal years 2011 to 2015 and examined to determine compliance with real property management statutes and regulations. GAO compared each lease to a selected set of requirements (i.e., square footage; lease term; prospectus threshold (annual rental rate); scope of contracting officer’s authority; and location or address of property) based on statute, regulation, or corresponding GSA delegation letter. GAO also reviewed GSA guidance and other relevant documentation and interviewed GSA officials. What GAO Recommends GAO is not making any recommendations. For more information, contact David J. Wise at (202) 512-2834 or wised@gao.gov.



GAO-16-781, Waste Management: DOD Has Generally Addressed Legislative Requirements on the Use of Burn Pits but Needs to Fully Assess Health Effects, September 26, 2016

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found In assessing the Department of Defense's (DOD) March 2016 report to Congress on the use of burn pits, GAO found that it generally addressed the requirements in section 313 of the Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. To complete this report, DOD tasked the military services, the Joint Staff, and the overseas combatant commands to provide information on the requirements in the mandate, including policies and procedures related to the disposal of covered waste (including certain types of hazardous waste, medical waste, and items such as tires, treated wood, and batteries) in burn pits during contingency operations. GAO found that DOD's report fully addressed four of the seven reporting requirements and partially addressed the remaining three. For example, the report addressed who is responsible for ensuring compliance with the legislative requirements, but partially addressed whether the waste categories are appropriately and clearly distinguished in surveys and assessments. Although DOD established guidance to meet applicable legislative requirements through the issuance of DOD Instruction 4715.19, U.S. Central Command is the only overseas geographic combatant command that has established complementary policies and procedures for implementing this guidance. The instruction applies to all the combatant commands, but it does not specify how combatant commanders will ensure compliance with requirements in the instruction. Officials from the other geographic combatant commands stated that their commands have not developed similar policies and procedures because they do not utilize burn pits and there is an absence of current contingency operations in their respective areas of responsibility. Nonetheless, while most of the overseas geographic commands may not currently be involved in contingency operations within their areas of responsibility, waste disposal would likely be required if such operations arise in the future, and the use of burn pits would be one option for disposing of waste. Establishing policies and procedures would better position these commands to implement DOD's instruction. The effects of exposing individuals to burn pit emissions are not well understood, and DOD has not fully assessed these health risks. DOD officials stated that there are short-term effects from being exposed to toxins from the burning of waste. However, the officials also stated that DOD does not have enough data to confirm whether direct exposure to burn pits causes long-term health issues. Although DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs have commissioned studies to enhance their understanding of burn pit emissions, the current lack of data on emissions specific to burn pits and related individual exposures limits efforts to characterize potential long-term health impacts on servicemembers and other base personnel. A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine outlined the data needed for assessing exposures and potential related health risks, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has established a registry to collect some information. However, DOD has not undertaken data-gathering and research efforts to specifically examine this relationship to fully understand any associated health risks. Why GAO Did This Study Burn pits help base commanders manage waste generated by U.S. forces overseas, but they also produce harmful emissions that military and other health professionals believe may result in chronic health effects for those exposed. Section 313 of the NDAA for FY 2015 requires the Secretary of Defense to review DOD compliance with law and guidance regarding the disposal of covered waste in burn pits. DOD submitted a report on the results of its review in March 2016. Section 313 also includes a provision for GAO to[...]



GAO-16-813R, International Mail: Information on Designated Postal Operators and Universal Service in Selected Countries, September 26, 2016

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found Based on the information GAO obtained about postal service in 10 selected countries, 9 of the 10 countries formally selected their current designated postal operator either directly or indirectly via statute. All 10 countries have one postal operator registered with the Universal Postal Union (UPU). All 10 countries include similar elements in their definitions of the universal service obligation, but have wide variation in how they implement elements of their universal service obligation. When defining their universal service, all 10 countries mentioned one or more of the following: the types of products to be delivered, pricing, or how often mail was to be delivered and collected. While all countries defined and implemented service as nationwide, the information we obtained also showed that each country implemented other specific elements of universal postal service differently: product range, consumer access, delivery and collection, pricing, and service quality. In addition to how countries define and implement universal postal service, GAO found information that indicated the selected countries also varied in how they fund universal service, either by requiring the designated postal operator to fund universal service out of its own revenues or by paying the designated postal operator out of public funds to cover those costs. Each of the 10 countries has a government agency that regulates the country’s designated postal operators to ensure that these universal service obligations are met. However, based on the information GAO obtained, the countries use a variety of mechanisms to ensure this obligation is met. For example, all but one country publishes performance information for the designated postal operator, and 5 countries give the postal regulatory agency the power to direct postal operators to take actions to fulfill the universal service obligation or fine the designated postal operators if these obligations are not met. Why GAO Did This Study The United States Postal Service (USPS) exchanged 940 million pieces of mail with more than 190 countries in 2015.  This mail exchange generally occurs under agreements negotiated through the UPU, a United Nations agency that facilitates the exchange of international postal service. UPU’s member countries agree to ensure a right to universal postal service consisting of quality basic postal services over their entire territory at affordable prices, but each country can implement this obligation differently.  Additionally, each country can designate one or more postal operators to provide universal postal service. As a practical matter, countries without a mail delivery monopoly may have multiple postal operators that could provide universal delivery of letter mail. GAO was asked to examine how countries without a mail delivery monopoly select designated postal operators and assure that those operators can meet their universal service requirements. This report describes how selected countries without a mail delivery monopoly: (1) selected their designated postal operator; (2) define and implement their universal service obligation; and (3) seek to assure that designated operators meet the universal service obligation. To select countries for our analysis, GAO used characteristics such as international mail volume, the extent of privatization of designated operators, and European Union membership status to provide a diverse sample of 10 countries that did not have a letter delivery monopoly and exchanged the most mail with the United States. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed information available on the national government agencies responsible for regulating their postal industry (the postal regulatory agency), designated operator websites, annual reports from postal regulatory age[...]



GAO-16-771, Electronic Health Information: HHS Needs to Strengthen Security and Privacy Guidance and Oversight, August 26, 2016

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The use of electronic health information can allow providers to more efficiently share information and give patients easier access to their health information, among other benefits. Nonetheless, systems storing and transmitting health information in electronic form are vulnerable to cyber-based threats. The resulting breaches—involving over 113 million records in 2015—can have serious adverse impacts such as identity theft, fraud, and disruption of health care services, and their number has increased steadily in recent years, from 0 in 2009 to 56 in 2015 (see figure). Number of Reported Hacking and Information Technology Breaches Affecting Health Care Records of 500 or More Individuals The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has established guidance for covered entities, such as health plans and care providers, for use in their efforts to comply with HIPAA requirements regarding the privacy and security of protected health information, but it does not address all elements called for by other federal cybersecurity guidance. Specifically, HHS's guidance does not address how covered entities should tailor their implementations of key security controls identified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to their specific needs. Such controls include developing risk responses, among others. Further, covered entities and business associates have been challenged to comply with HHS requirements for risk assessment and management. Without more comprehensive guidance, covered entities may not be adequately protecting electronic health information from compromise. HHS has established an oversight program for compliance with privacy and security regulations, but actions did not always fully verify that the regulations were implemented. Specifically, HHS's Office of Civil Rights investigates complaints of security or privacy violations, almost 18,000 of which were received in 2014. It also has established an audit program for covered entities' security and privacy programs. However, for some of its investigations it provided technical assistance that was not pertinent to identified problems, and in other cases it did not always follow up to ensure that agreed-upon corrective actions were taken once investigative cases were closed. Further, the office has not yet established benchmarks to assess the effectiveness of its audit program. These weaknesses result in less assurance that loss or misuse of health information is being adequately addressed. Why GAO Did This Study As a digital version of a patient's medical record or chart, an EHR can make pertinent health information more readily available and usable for providers and patients. However, recent data breaches highlight the need to ensure the security and privacy of these records. HHS has primary responsibility for setting standards for protecting electronic health information and for enforcing compliance with these standards. GAO was asked to review the current health information cybersecurity infrastructure. The specific objectives were to (1) describe expected benefits of and cyber threats to electronic health information, (2) determine the extent to which HHS security and privacy guidance for EHRs are consistent with federal cybersecurity guidance, and (3) assess the extent to which HHS oversees these requirements. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed relevant reports, federal guidance, and HHS documentation and interviewed subject matter experts and agency officials. What GAO Recommends GAO is making five recommendations, including that HHS update its guidance for protecting electronic health information to address key security elements, improve technical assistance it provides to covered entities, follow up on corrective actions, and est[...]



GAO-16-869T, Federal Real Property: Efforts Made, but Challenges Remain in Reducing Unneeded Facilities, September 23, 2016

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found Since 2012, the administration has taken steps to reform real property management and address the long-standing challenge of reducing excess and underutilized property. For example, in 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued government-wide guidance—the National Strategy for the Efficient Use of Real Property—which GAO found in 2016 could help agencies strategically manage real property. However, GAO's work has found that significant challenges persist in managing real property in general and excess and underutilized property in particular. They include: a lack of reliable data with which to measure the extent of the problem, a complex disposal process, costly environmental requirements, competing stakeholder interests, and limited accessibility of some federal properties. Properties in the Washington, D.C., area such as the Cotton Annex building, vacant General Services Administration (GSA) warehouses, and buildings on the St. Elizabeths campus (pictured below) illustrate the challenges for disposal and re-utilization of vacant federal buildings. For example, GAO found in 2014 that real property data indicated some GSA warehouses were utilized when they had been vacant for as long as 10 years. Examples of Vacant Federal Buildings In addition to the steps already taken by the administration, further action by federal agencies to implement GAO's previous recommendations could help to address some of these challenges. For example, GAO has made recommendations to GSA and other federal agencies that, if implemented, would increase the federal government's capacity to manage its portfolio and document the progress of reform efforts. GAO highlighted its highest priority open recommendations to GSA in an August 2016 letter to GSA. Among those are three recommendations related to excess and underutilized property, including a recommendation to assess the reliability of data collected and entered into GSA's Federal Real Property Profile database by individual federal agencies. Additionally, real property reform bills that could address the long-standing problem of federal excess and underutilized property have been introduced in Congress. Specifically, two bills have been passed by the House of Representatives in 2016, but neither has been enacted yet. Why GAO Did This Study In 2003, GAO added “Federal Real Property” to GAO's biennial High-Risk list, in part, due to long-standing challenges federal agencies face in managing federally owned real property, including disposal of excess and underutilized property. Continuing to maintain these unneeded facilities puts the government at risk for wasting resources due to ongoing maintenance costs as well as lost revenue from failing to sell excess property. Despite implementing policies and systems that may help federal agencies manage real property, the federal government continues to maintain excess and underutilized property. In fiscal year 2015, federal agencies reported over 7,000 excess or underutilized real property assets. This testimony addresses (1) efforts by the federal government to address excess and underutilized properties since 2012, (2) long-standing challenges to managing and disposing of federal real property and (3) potential solutions to address these long-standing challenges. This statement summarizes the results of a number of previous GAO reports on real property utilization and management that were issued from 2011 through 2016. GAO also included some updates based on follow-up, conducted on the status of GAO's recommendations in 2015 and 2016. For more information, contact Dave Wise at (202) 512-2834 or wised@gao.gov.



GAO-16-740, Nuclear Weapons: DOD Assessed the Need for Each Leg of the Strategic Triad and Considered Other Reductions to Nuclear Forces, September 22, 2016

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) assessed the need for each leg of the strategic triad in support of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and considered other reductions to nuclear forces in subsequent reviews. The department identified advantages of each leg of the triad and concluded that retaining all three would help maintain strategic deterrence and stability. The advantages DOD identified include the survivability of the sea-based leg, the intercontinental ballistic missiles' contribution to stability, and the ability of the nuclear-capable bombers to visibly forward deploy. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report states—and DOD officials also told GAO—that the administration has considered various options for the U.S. nuclear force structure, including options in which DOD would eliminate one leg of the triad. For example, Strategic Command, Air Force, and Navy officials told GAO that they had analyzed alternative strategic force structures in preparation for the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. DOD officials also told GAO that the department had assessed nuclear force reductions as part of reviews conducted after the Nuclear Posture Review, including during the development of the President's 2013 nuclear employment guidance, the 2013 Strategic Choices Management Review, and DOD's 2014 plan to implement the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. The figure shows DOD's current planned strategic force structure for implementing New START, including the number of delivery vehicles that would be retained for each leg of the triad. DOD's Current Planned Strategic Force Structure for Implementing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Grouped by the Three Legs of the Strategic Triad This is a public version of a classified report GAO issued in May 2016. It excludes classified information on warhead levels, the specific advantages of each leg of the triad, and some of the analyses of alternatives that were considered. Why GAO Did This Study Since the 1960s, the United States has deployed nuclear weapons on three types of strategic delivery vehicles collectively known as the strategic triad. The triad comprises the sea-based leg (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), ground-based leg (intercontinental ballistic missiles), and airborne leg (nuclear-capable heavy bombers). As a result of arms control agreements and strategic policies, the number of U.S. nuclear weapons and strategic delivery vehicles has been reduced substantially; however, the strategic triad has remained intact. DOD and the Department of Energy are planning to invest significant resources to recapitalize and modernize the strategic triad in the coming decades. The departments projected in 2015 that the costs of maintaining U.S. nuclear forces for fiscal years 2016 through 2025 would total $319.8 billion, and DOD expects recapitalization and modernization efforts to extend into the 2030s. GAO was asked to review DOD's analysis of the decision to retain all three legs of the strategic triad. This report describes the processes DOD used in supporting that decision. GAO reviewed documentation and interviewed officials from DOD and the military services on the key reviews DOD carried out from 2009 to 2014— including the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review—in analyzing its strategic force structure. What GAO Recommends GAO is not making any recommendations in this report. DOD provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Joseph W. Kirschbaum at (202) 512-9971 or kirschbaumj@gao.gov.



GAO-16-871T, High-Containment Laboratories: Actions Needed to Mitigate Risk of Potential Exposure and Release of Dangerous Pathogens, September 23, 2016

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The total number of incidents involving incomplete inactivation--a process to destroy the hazardous effects of pathogens while retaining characteristics for future use--that occurred from 2003 through 2015 is unknown for several reasons. One key reason is that the Select Agent Program--operated by the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) to oversee certain dangerous pathogens, known as select agents--does not require laboratories to identify such incidents on reporting forms. According to the program, 10 incidents occurred from 2003 through 2015. However, GAO identified an additional 11 incidents that the program did not initially identify. Because the program cannot easily identify incidents involving incomplete inactivation, it does not know the frequency or reason they occur, making it difficult to develop guidance to help mitigate future incidents. The 21 identified incidents involved a variety of pathogens and laboratories, as shown below. Figure: Twenty-one Identified Incidents Involving Incomplete Inactivation that Occurred from 2003 through 2015 by Pathogen and Laboratory Type Several challenges affect the implementation of inactivation in high-containment laboratories, including gaps in scientific knowledge and limited guidance. For example, there is limited federal guidance for researchers on the development and validation of inactivation protocols. Validation helps ensure protocols are scientifically sound and produce consistent results. Due to limited guidance, laboratories varied in their interpretation of validated methods of inactivation, resulting in researchers applying differing levels of rigor. Without more comprehensive guidance, as called for by experts, protocols will vary in their scientific soundness, increasing the risk of incomplete inactivation. The Select Agent Program did not consistently refer incidents involving incomplete inactivation for further investigation and enforcement for violations of select agent regulations. For example, the program referred incidents involving incomplete inactivation at various laboratories, but did not refer two incidents in 2014 that occurred at HHS. A memorandum of understanding between HHS and USDA states that the program should handle incidents consistently. GAO found, however, that the program does not have a consistent, written set of criteria for handling incidents. Without such criteria, the program risks inconsistent enforcement of select agent regulations. This further highlights GAO's previous finding that existing federal oversight of high-containment laboratories is fragmented and self-policing. Why GAO Did This Study This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's September 2016 report, entitled High-Containment Laboratories: Improved Oversight of Dangerous Pathogens Needed to Mitigate Risk (GAO-16-642). For more information, contact Timothy M. Persons, Ph.D. at (202) 512-6412 or personst@gao.gov or John Neumann at (202) 512-3841 or neumannj@gao.gov.



GAO-16-797, Federal Disaster Assistance: Federal Departments and Agencies Obligated at Least $277.6 Billion during Fiscal Years 2005 through 2014, September 22, 2016

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found During fiscal years 2005 through 2014, the federal government obligated at least $277.6 billion across 17 federal departments and agencies for disaster assistance programs and activities. This estimate constitutes total obligations identifiable to disaster activities across three categories: the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund (DRF), disaster-specific programs and activities identified across the 17 departments and agencies, and disaster-applicable programs and activities across the 17 departments and agencies (see figure). Federal Disaster Assistance Obligations during Fiscal Years 2005 through 2014 Note: An obligation is a definite commitment that creates a legal liability of the government for the payment of goods and services ordered or received. Obligations reported for some disaster-specific and disaster-applicable programs and activities contain estimates. GAO's inclusion of estimated data in aggregated totals contributes to an approximation of a government-wide total. The estimate of $277.6 billion represents a minimum and not the total amount of disaster assistance spending by the federal government during fiscal years 2005 through 2014 because relevant obligations for some programs and activities are not separately tracked or are not available. Specifically, GAO found that more than half of the 17 departments and agencies in the scope of this review reported that obligations for certain disaster assistance programs or activities during this time frame are not separately tracked or are not available, for various reasons. For example, 5 departments and agencies reported that some disaster assistance programs or activities are not separately tracked because spending related to these activities is generally subsumed by a department's general operating budget or mission-related costs. Another 4 departments and agencies reported that obligations and expenditures specific to disaster assistance activities are not tracked or cannot be reliably estimated because there is no requirement for state or other recipients of the financial support to indicate whether or how much of the funding or assistance is used for disasters. Why GAO Did This Study Each year, the federal government obligates billions of dollars through programs and activities that provide assistance to state and local governments, tribes, and certain nonprofit organizations and individuals that have suffered injury or damages from major disaster or emergency incidents, such as hurricanes, tornados, or fires. While FEMA tracks DRF spending related to major disasters and emergencies declared under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, there has not been a systematic effort to account for federal obligations for disaster assistance outside of the DRF. The Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, includes a provision for GAO to report on disaster assistance expenditures by the federal government. This report identifies federal disaster assistance programs and activities across 17 federal departments and agencies and the obligations for these programs and activities, where available, during fiscal years 2005 through 2014. To conduct this work, GAO selected 17 federal departments and agencies identified in the National Planning Frameworks as having responsibility for leading or coordinating federal efforts to mitigate, respond to, and recover from domestic disaster incidents. GAO analyzed documents identifying and describing disaster assistance programs and activities, interviewed federal officials, and distributed a data[...]



GAO-16-750, Equal Employment Opportunity: Strengthening Oversight Could Improve Federal Contractor Nondiscrimination Compliance, September 22, 2016

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found Since 2010, most compliance evaluations conducted by the Department of Labor's (DOL) Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) of federal supply and service contractors identified no violations; however, the methods used may not focus evaluations on contractors posing the greatest risk. OFCCP relies on compliance evaluations to detect equal employment violations by federal contractors and conducts evaluations for about 2 percent of federal contractor establishments annually. Since 2010, about 78 percent of evaluations found no violations and about 2 percent had discrimination findings (see figure). However, when it selects contractors for evaluations, OFCCP does not use a generalizable sample that would allow for conclusions about the federal contractor population. Therefore, it does not have reasonable assurance that it is focusing its compliance efforts on those contractors with the greatest risk of noncompliance. During evaluations, OFCCP requested and reviewed documents related to contractors' equal employment efforts, including their Affirmative Action Program (AAP), which outlines contractors' compliance efforts. In 2015, close to 85 percent of evaluated contractor establishments did not submit their AAP within 30 days of OFCCP's request and were granted extensions in some cases. This suggests that OFCCP processes do not ensure that all contractors are complying with their obligation to complete and annually update an AAP. Figure: Findings of Federal Contractor Nondiscrimination Compliance Evaluations From Fiscal Years 2010-2015 Since 2012, OFCCP's outreach and compliance assistance activities to assist contractors and other stakeholders, such as protected workers and industry groups, have declined as the agency refocused its activities on enforcement, and some stakeholders said guidance could be clearer. Outreach activities, such as community group presentations and job fair participation, decreased more than 80 percent from 2012 to 2014. Some stakeholders told GAO that workers, applicants, and contractors may benefit from more outreach activities. OFCCP's compliance assistance activities, such as seminars, for contractors—are down 30 percent since 2012. Many contractors told GAO they do not feel comfortable contacting OFCCP for assistance and hire third party support to help comply with federal nondiscrimination and affirmative action requirements. While contractors generally found OFCCP guidance helpful, both stakeholders and contractors said the guidance could be clearer to help them understand the requirements. Without clear guidance, contractors may not be able to understand their equal employment obligations. Why GAO Did This Study OFCCP is charged with ensuring that about 200,000 federal contractor establishments refrain from discrimination and take affirmative action to provide equal employment opportunities for certain protected classes of workers. GAO was asked to review OFCCP practices. In this report, GAO (1) assessed how OFCCP conducts supply and service compliance evaluations, including the methodology, resources, and results, and (2) evaluated OFCCP outreach, assistance, and guidance efforts to assist contractors in complying with the requirements it enforces. GAO analyzed both OFCCP Information System data and a nongeneralizable sample of 43 case files and reviewed relevant federal laws, executive orders, regulations, guidance, and agency documents. GAO also interviewed a nongeneralizable sample of 24 contractors with and without experience with a compliance evaluation; managers and staff in OFCCP's headquarters and all six regional offices; and re[...]



GAO-16-680, Earthquakes: Additional Actions Needed to Identify and Mitigate Risks to Federal Buildings and Implement an Early Warning System, August 31, 2016

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The four cities GAO visited (see figure) have taken various actions to assess and mitigate seismic risks, including identifying and assessing their high risk buildings, structurally retrofitting buildings, and requiring that furnishings and nonstructural components be secured, among other things. Figure: Select Cities on 2014 Earthquake Shaking Map Note: A 2 percent in 50 years probability equates to an earthquake recurring and exceeding a given MMI level about every 2,475 years. About 40 percent of federally-owned and -leased buildings in the United States are located in areas where very strong to extreme shaking from earthquakes could occur. The Department of Defense (DOD) and General Services Administration (GSA), which are responsible for the majority of these buildings, have not fully identified their exceptionally high risk (EHR) buildings or prioritized and implemented comprehensive seismic safety measures. Federal agencies identified their EHR buildings as part of a government-wide effort in the 1990's, and GSA has begun taking initial steps to identify its current EHR buildings. In addition, while DOD and GSA have taken some steps to reduce the seismic risk of their buildings through seismic retrofits, disposals, and low-cost mitigation alternatives, GAO observed gaps in the extent to which these agencies have comprehensively implemented these mitigation measures, such as securing furniture. Until they fully identify their EHR buildings and prioritize and implement comprehensive safety measures, DOD and GSA will be unable to fully understand and address the vulnerabilities of their buildings. U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) early warning system—ShakeAlert—is capable of broadcasting early warnings, and stakeholders, including state agencies and universities, have identified multiple benefits, such as enhanced public safety. However, implementation challenges exist that could inhibit efforts to expand the system throughout the western United States. For example, decisions on funding, public education, and user certification are needed to enable implementation of an integrated system across jurisdictions. Developing a program management plan, which helps establish management controls, could help address ShakeAlert implementation challenges. Why GAO Did This Study Earthquakes pose a significant threat to people and infrastructure because of their capacity to cause catastrophic casualties, property damage, and economic disruption. According to the USGS, 16 states have a relatively high likelihood of experiencing damaging ground shaking in the next 50 years, and nearly half of all Americans are exposed to potentially damaging earthquakes. GAO was asked to review efforts to mitigate against earthquakes impacts in the United States. Specifically, this report address (1) actions select cities have taken to mitigate seismic risks, (2) the distribution of federal buildings relative to earthquake prone areas and actions to identify and mitigate seismic risks to these buildings, and (3) what is known about the benefits of USGS's earthquake early warning system, ShakeAlert, and the extent to which implementation challenges are being addressed. GAO reviewed key documents and federal authorities; collected federal building inventory information; conducted site visits to selected cities—Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Memphis; and interviewed, among others, federal, state, and local officials. What GAO Recommends GAO recommends that DOD and GSA (1) fully identify their exceptionally high risk buildings; (2) prioritize and implement comprehensive seis[...]



GAO-16-717, Combating Wildlife Trafficking: Agencies Are Taking a Range of Actions, but the Task Force Lacks Performance Targets for Assessing Progress, September 22, 2016

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found While criminal elements of all kinds, including some terrorist entities and rogue security personnel, engage in poaching and transporting ivory and rhino horn across Africa, transnational organized criminals are the driving force behind wildlife trafficking, according to reports GAO reviewed and agency officials GAO spoke with in the United States and Africa. Wildlife trafficking can contribute to instability and violence and harm people as well as animals. According to reports, about 1,000 rangers were killed from 2004 to 2014. Wildlife trafficking in Africa particularly affects large animals, with populations of elephants and rhinos diminishing at a rate that puts them at risk of extinction. This Elephant Died in Northern Kenya Several Days after Sustaining Bullet Wounds Agencies of the interagency Task Force leading U.S. efforts to combat wildlife trafficking are taking a range of conservation and capacity-building actions. The Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, provides law enforcement assistance and supports global conservation efforts. The Department of State contributes to law enforcement capacity building and diplomatic efforts, while the Department of Justice prosecutes criminals and conducts legal training to improve partner-country capacity. Further, the U.S. Agency for International Development works to build community and national- level enforcement capacity and supports various approaches to combat wildlife trafficking. Several other agencies also contribute expertise or resources to support various activities outlined in the Task Force's National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking Implementation Plan . The Task Force provides some information about progress, but it lacks performance targets, making effectiveness difficult to determine at the strategic level. A fundamental element in an organization's efforts to manage for results is its ability to set specific targets that reflect strategic goals. Task Force officials identified a range of reasons why they do not have targets, including dependence on global partners, the long time periods needed to document results, and limited data availability. However, Task Force agencies have provided performance targets for other efforts that face similar challenges. Without targets, it is unclear whether the Task Force's performance is meeting expectations, making it difficult to gauge progress and to ensure that resources are being utilized most effectively in their efforts against wildlife trafficking. Why GAO Did This Study Illegal trade in wildlife—wildlife trafficking—continues to push some protected and endangered animal species to the brink of extinction, according to the Department of State. Wildlife trafficking undermines conservation efforts, can fuel corruption, and destabilizes local communities that depend on wildlife for biodiversity and ecotourism revenues. This trade is estimated to be worth $7 billion to $23 billion annually. In 2013, President Obama issued an executive order that established the interagency Task Force charged with developing a strategy to guide U.S. efforts on this issue. GAO was asked to review U.S. government efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This report focuses on wildlife trafficking in Africa, particularly of large animals, and examines, among other things, (1) what is known about the security implications of wildlife trafficking and its consequences, (2) actions Task Force agencies are taking to combat wildlife trafficking, and (3) the extent to which the Task Force assesses its prog[...]



GAO-16-818, Tiered Evidence Grants: Opportunities Exist to Share Lessons from Early Implementation and Inform Future Federal Efforts, September 21, 2016

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found Tiered evidence grants are a new policy tool federal agencies are using to incorporate evidence of effectiveness into grantmaking. Under this approach, agencies establish tiers of grant funding based on the level of evidence grantees provide on their models for providing social, educational, health, or other services. Smaller awards are used to test new and innovative service models; larger awards are used to scale service models with strong evidence. To implement tiered evidence grants, agencies add evidence and evaluation requirements throughout the federal grant life cycle, including conducting independent evaluations of the grantees' service models and disseminating the evaluation results. Overview of a Tiered Evidence Grant Model with Three Tiers Note: Some programs have two tiers—preliminary evidence and strong evidence. Agency officials identified several potential benefits of using tiered evidence grants, such as providing incentives for grantees to implement service models supported by evidence and conducting evaluations to build the evidence base. Officials from the agencies in GAO's review and grantees also identified various challenges with tiered evidence grants. In some cases the agencies identified factors to mitigate the challenges. For example, grantees told GAO that they encountered challenges drafting evaluation plans (which describe the methodology and are generally required for the grant applications). As an example of how agencies addressed this challenge, the Department of Labor contracted with a program evaluation firm to provide grantees with technical assistance and increased the time for grantees to draft evaluation plans that accurately reflected their service models. GAO has previously reported on collaborative mechanisms, such as interagency groups, that can be used to implement programs and share lessons learned. However, currently there is no formal mechanism administered by OMB for agencies to collaborate on tiered evidence grants. By relying on ad hoc collaboration, agencies may miss opportunities to capture and share lessons learned that could strengthen tiered evidence grantmaking. Why GAO Did This Study The federal government spends more than $600 billion a year on grants to fund a wide range of programs and services, including those related to social services, education, and health care. To better integrate evidence and rigorous evaluation in federal grantmaking, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has encouraged federal agencies to use tiered evidence grant programs. The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 includes a provision for GAO to periodically review its implementation. The objectives of this report are to describe (1) key features of tiered evidence grants, (2) benefits and challenges of using tiered evidence grants, and (3) key factors to facilitate their use, and (4) to assess the extent to which federal agencies collaborate on tiered evidence grants. To address these objectives GAO identified the five domestic-focused tiered evidence grant programs that were established prior to 2013. GAO reviewed key documents and interviewed officials from these programs. GAO also interviewed grant recipients from three of the grant programs. GAO selected these grant programs using various criteria, such as the number of evidence tiers and their total amount of funding. What GAO Recommends GAO recommends that OMB establish a formal means for federal agencies to collaborate on tiered evidence grants. OMB had no comments on the recommendation. For more informa[...]



GAO-16-883T, Intellectual Property: Patent Office Has Opportunities to Further Improve Application Review and Patent Quality [Reissued on September 21, 2016], September 16, 2016

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) examiners face a variety of challenges in reviewing patent applications and issuing high quality patents. Some challenges affect examiners' ability to complete a thorough review of information relevant to a claimed invention—or a “prior art” search—which is the most time consuming aspect of examining a patent application. For example, the amount and availability of prior art as well as the extent to which examiners are able to search prior art quickly using the search tools USPTO provides may present a challenge to examiners in reviewing patent applications. Additionally, the clarity of patent applications and the amount of time USPTO allots examiners to complete their work, among other challenges, may affect examiners' ability to ensure that patents USPTO issues are high quality. USPTO is taking steps to address the challenges examiners face in reviewing applications and issuing high quality patents—most notably through the agency's Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative—but some steps have limitations and opportunities exist for further improvement. For example, USPTO is taking steps to strengthen monitoring of examiners' work. However, USPTO still faces limitations in assessing patent quality overall, including the thoroughness of examiners' prior art searches, because, for example, USPTO has not established a consistent definition of patent quality or guidance on what constitutes a thorough prior art search for different technologies. Additionally, while USPTO has an overall strategic goal that includes optimizing patent quality, the agency has not developed specific goals and performance indicators related to patent quality and prior art search improvement. Without consistently and clearly defining patent quality and a thorough prior art search, and establishing goals and performance indicators to monitor examiners' work, USPTO will be unable to fully measure progress toward meeting its patent quality strategic goal consistent with internal control standards and leading practices for federal agencies. USPTO has not comprehensively assessed the time examiners need to perform high quality patent examinations, including thorough prior art searches, and has not fully assessed the effects of other agency incentive policies on patent quality. For instance, USPTO recently adjusted the time allotted to examiners for reviewing applications in some technologies, but has not recently assessed the time needed for a thorough examination in all technology areas. GAO estimates, based on its survey, that 70 percent of patent examiners say they do not have enough time to complete a thorough examination given a typical workload. Additionally, most stakeholders GAO interviewed said that the time pressures examiners face is one of the central challenges to ensuring patent quality; however, USPTO has not analyzed the effects of its production-based incentive policies on patent quality. According to federal standards for internal control, operational success requires providing personnel with the right incentives for the job. Without comprehensively assessing the time needed to conduct a thorough examination or USPTO's current incentives, USPTO cannot be assured that its time allotments and incentives support the agency's patent quality goal. Why GAO Did This Study USPTO examines patent applications to ensure that inventions meet the legal requirements for patentability as set forth in patent laws and federal case law. Resolving disputes over pa[...]



GAO-16-642, High-Containment Laboratories: Improved Oversight of Dangerous Pathogens Needed to Mitigate Risk, August 30, 2016

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The total number of incidents involving incomplete inactivation—a process to destroy the hazardous effects of pathogens while retaining characteristics for future use—that occurred from 2003 through 2015 is unknown for several reasons. One key reason is that the Select Agent Program—operated by the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) to oversee certain dangerous pathogens, known as select agents—does not require laboratories to identify such incidents on reporting forms. According to the program, 10 incidents occurred from 2003 through 2015. However, GAO identified an additional 11 incidents that the program did not initially identify. Because the program cannot easily identify incidents involving incomplete inactivation, it does not know the frequency or reason they occur, making it difficult to develop guidance to help mitigate future incidents. The 21 identified incidents involved a variety of pathogens and laboratories, as shown below. Figure: Twenty-one Identified Incidents Involving Incomplete Inactivation that Occurred from 2003 through 2015 by Pathogen and Laboratory Type Several challenges affect the implementation of inactivation in high-containment laboratories, including gaps in scientific knowledge and limited guidance. For example, there is limited federal guidance for researchers on the development and validation of inactivation protocols. Validation helps ensure protocols are scientifically sound and produce consistent results. Due to limited guidance, laboratories varied in their interpretation of validated methods of inactivation, resulting in researchers applying differing levels of rigor. Without more comprehensive guidance, as called for by experts, protocols will vary in their scientific soundness, increasing the risk of incomplete inactivation. The Select Agent Program did not consistently refer incidents involving incomplete inactivation for further investigation and enforcement for violations of select agent regulations. For example, the program referred incidents involving incomplete inactivation at various laboratories, but did not refer two incidents in 2014 that occurred at HHS. A memorandum of understanding between HHS and USDA states that the program should handle incidents consistently. GAO found, however, that the program does not have a consistent, written set of criteria for handling incidents. Without such criteria, the program risks inconsistent enforcement of select agent regulations. This further highlights GAO’s previous finding that existing federal oversight of high-containment laboratories is fragmented and self-policing. Why GAO Did This Study Several incidents involving the shipment of live pathogens, thought to be inactivated, have recently occurred, potentially exposing people to dangerous pathogens that cause infectious diseases, such as the bacterium that causes anthrax. GAO was asked to evaluate issues related to inactivation of pathogens in high-containment laboratories. This report examines (1) the extent to which incidents involving incomplete inactivation occurred from 2003 through 2015, (2) any challenges that may affect the implementation of inactivation in high-containment laboratories, and (3) the extent to which the Select Agent Program referred violations and enforced regulations related to incidents involving incomplete inactivation. GAO convened an expert meeting with the assistance of the National Academy of Sciences to discuss various issues sur[...]



GAO-16-820, Defense Health Care Reform: DOD Needs Further Analysis of the Size, Readiness, and Efficiency of the Medical Force, September 21, 2016

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The Department of Defense's (DOD) approach in its Report on Military Health System Modernization (the Study) did not consistently follow relevant generally accepted research standards for research design and execution. While the Study's recommendations position DOD, over time, to take actions to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Military Health System, GAO found a number of shortcomings, including the following: The Study did not fully mitigate limitations identified in its analysis of the required number of active-duty and civilian medical personnel. For example, the Study did not explain how known issues with the military services' workforce models affected the results of its requirements analysis. Without addressing such limitations, DOD will not have a full assessment of its medical workforce needs. The Study did not sufficiently identify or mitigate limitations concerning its assessment of the requirements necessary to maintain the skills of active-duty medical providers. For example, although there were limitations concerning the accuracy of information on medical providers' workload, the Study did not identify or mitigate these limitations. Having accurate workload information is important to establishing a sound standard for maintaining the clinical skills of medical providers. The Study established goals for transferring health care from DOD's purchased care network into its own network of hospitals and clinics and for increasing the productivity of active-duty medical providers, but did not develop a strategy explaining how these goals would be achieved. Without such a strategy it remains unclear whether DOD can achieve its goals to transfer health care from the purchased care network into its own network. DOD's estimated cost savings did not fully utilize key practices for developing such estimates. DOD estimated net annual savings of $366 million from changes to 10 small hospitals and achievement of its goals for recapturing health care and increasing the productivity of active-duty health care providers. However, DOD did not include in its estimate an appropriate level of detail concerning the calculation of estimated savings, all potentially significant costs, or a description of the steps taken by the Study team to assess the reliability of cost data used to develop the estimate. For example, the Study recommended that a number of inpatient facilities be closed, but GAO's analysis found that the Study did not identify estimated costs associated with these changes. As a result, DOD's cost savings estimate did not present a full and accurate picture of possible costs and savings. Why GAO Did This Study DOD initiated the Study to address perceived weaknesses within the Military Health System and to leverage advances in civilian business practices. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 included a provision for DOD to submit the Study to the congressional defense committees and for GAO to review the Study. DOD submitted its study in February 2016. This report assesses, among other things, the extent to which the Study followed an approach that is consistent with relevant generally accepted research standards and utilized key practices for estimating cost savings. GAO compared the Study with generally accepted research standards that were developed by reviewing research literature and DOD guidance and with key practices derived from cost-estimating guidance. What GAO Recommends [...]



GAO-16-867T, Veterans Affairs Contracting: Improvements in Policies and Processes Could Yield Cost Savings and Efficiency, September 20, 2016

Tue, 20 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found GAO found opportunities for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its multi-billion dollar annual procurement spending in several areas including data systems, procurement policies and oversight, acquisition workforce, and contract management. Shortcomings in VA's recording of procurement data limit its visibility into the full extent of its spending. A recent policy directing that medical-surgical supply orders be captured in VA's procurement system is a step in the right direction, but proper implementation is at risk because procedures are not in place to ensure all obligations are recorded. VA's procurement policy framework is outdated and fragmented. As a result, contracting officers are unclear where to turn for current guidance. VA has been revising its overarching procurement regulation since 2011 but completion is not expected until 2018. Meanwhile, contracting officers must consult two versions of this regulation, as well as other policy related documents. Clear policies are key to ensuring VA conducts procurements effectively on behalf of veterans. The figure below depicts the various sources of regulations, policy, and guidance. Sources of Veterans Affairs (VA) Procurement Policy as of June 2016 Managing workload is a challenge for VA's contracting officers and their representatives in customer offices. A 2014 directive created contract liaisons at medical centers in part to address this issue, but medical centers have not consistently implemented this initiative, and VA officials have not identified the reasons for uneven implementation. VA can improve its procurement processes and achieve cost savings by complying with applicable policy and regulation to obtain available discounts when procuring medical supplies; leveraging its buying power through strategic sourcing; ensuring key documents are included in the contract file, as GAO found that more than a third of the 37 contract files lacked key documents; and ensuring that compliance reviews identify all contract file shortcomings. Why GAO Did This Study This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's September 2016 report, entitled Veterans Affairs Contracting: Improvements in Policies and Processes Could Yield Cost Savings and Efficiency (GAO-16-810). For more information, contact Michele Mackin at (202) 512-4841 or mackinm@gao.gov.    



GAO-16-760SP, Single Audit Analysis: Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (GAO-16-760SP), an E-Supplement to GAO-16-550T, September 20, 2016

Tue, 20 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

This is an e-supplement to GAO-16-550T. The Single Audit Act of 1984, as amended, is intended to improve accountability, including effective internal control over federal awards administered by state and local governments and nonprofit organizations. The Single Audit Act, as implemented by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requires each non-federal entity that expends a total amount of federal awards equal to or in excess of a threshold amount to have a single audit for a fiscal year. The single audit is an organization-wide financial statement audit that includes the audit of the Schedule of Expenditures of Federal Awards and also focuses on internal controls over financial reporting and the award recipient's compliance with laws and regulations governing the federal awards received. Single audits are a critical element in the federal government's ability to ensure that federal funds are properly used and that federal agencies have information to fulfill their oversight responsibility for the funds that they award to nonfederal entities. Auditors are required to provide opinions (or disclaimers of opinion, as appropriate) as to whether (1) the financial statements are presented fairly in all material respects in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles; (2) the schedule of expenditures of federal awards is presented fairly in all material respects in relation to the basic financial statements, as a whole; and (3) the award recipient complied with requirements that could have a material and direct effect on major federal programs. In December 2014, OMB implemented new single audit guidance in the Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards effective for audits of nonfederal entities for fiscal years beginning on or after December 26, 2014.



GAO-16-819, International Cash-Based Food Assistance: USAID Has Established Processes to Monitor Cash and Voucher Projects, but Data Limitations Impede Evaluation, September 20, 2016

Tue, 20 Sep 2016 13:00:00 -0400

What GAO Found The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its implementing partners have established processes to monitor cash transfer and food voucher projects. To monitor the implementation of these projects, USAID has assigned monitoring roles and responsibilities to staff, is developing country monitoring plans and monitoring tools, and is working to verify information that partners have provided through actions such as conducting site visits, and speaking with beneficiaries. To ensure that assistance is delivered according to their procedures and to the targeted beneficiaries, implementing partners monitor distributions, and interview beneficiaries regarding the distribution of the assistance. In addition, implementing partners conduct postdistribution surveys to gather information about the relevance, efficiency, and effectiveness of the assistance (see figure). USAID Implementing Partner Representatives Surveying Beneficiaries of Cash Transfer Projects Incomplete reporting and weaknesses in certain performance indicators limit USAID's ability to use monitoring data to evaluate cash transfer and food voucher projects' performance. GAO's review of 14 final reports, which USAID requires for each project, found that a majority of the reports lacked required data elements, such as prices for key staple foods. Only 1 report included all 12 required data elements, and the other reports were missing up to 8 elements. As a result, USAID has limited ability to assess the overall performance of these projects. Further, GAO found weaknesses in USAID's indicators for measuring cash and voucher projects' timeliness, cost-effectiveness, and appropriateness. USAID's indicator for timeliness does not track delays in implementation. In addition, the indicator for cost-effectiveness does not include a standardized unit for measuring project costs. Further, the indicator for project appropriateness does not have associated benchmarks for measuring cash transfer and food voucher projects' impact on local markets. As a result, USAID lacks information that would be useful for evaluating the projects' effectiveness relative to that of in-kind food aid. According to standards for internal control in the federal government, management should use quality information, including relevant data from reliable sources, to achieve an agency's objectives. Why GAO Did This Study For more than 60 years, the United States provided assistance to food-insecure countries primarily in the form of food commodities procured in the United States and transported overseas. In recent years, the U.S. government has increasingly provided food assistance in the form of cash transfers or food vouchers. In fiscal years 2010 through 2015, USAID funding for Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP) for cash transfers and food voucher projects grew from about $76 million to nearly $432 million. GAO was asked to review USAID's monitoring and evaluation of cash-based food assistance. This report examines, among other things, (1) USAID's and implementing partners' processes for monitoring cash transfer and food voucher projects and (2) the extent to which monitoring data reported to USAID can be used to evaluate the performance of such projects. GAO analyzed program data, interviewed relevant officials; and conducted fieldwork in Kenya and Liberia, selected on the basis of criteria such a[...]