Selected Agencies Took Steps to Minimize Effects on Mission but Opportunities Exist for Additional Action
GAO-17-79: Published: Dec 20, 2016. Publicly Released: Dec 20, 2016.
How are agencies responding to smaller budgets?
Federal discretionary spending, which funds activities like law enforcement training and worker protection programs, declined by about 12% between fiscal years 2010 and 2015.
We looked at the efforts of three federal agencies to manage their declining resources by:
1) Leading from the top e.g., reorganizing staff to better deal with workloads,
2) Using data analytics to guide decisions e.g., making data-driven process improvements, and
3) Reducing costs e.g., consolidating real property.
We recommended three ways to enhance their efforts and developed a framework that other agencies can use.
Overview of Framework for Examining Agencies’ Efforts to Manage Declining Resources
The framework identifies ways to lead from the top, use data analytics, and reduce costs.
What GAO Found
The three selected agencies GAO reviewed for this report—the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—each took a number of different approaches to manage declining resources that aligned with the three key themes outlined in GAO's framework. For example:
- Top Management Should Lead Efforts to Manage Declining Resources. ETA's Office of Foreign Labor Certification top management led efforts to ensure the agency maintains capacity to achieve its mission by taking steps to restructure its workforce to better use existing staff to address changes in workload. This includes cross-training its workforce to achieve greater interoperability of employees among its three processing centers.
- Data Analytics Should Guide Decision Making. EPA used Lean Six Sigma, a data-driven process-improvement methodology, to evaluate agency processes and identify opportunities to make them more efficient. For example, EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs reported that it reduced the time it takes to post pesticide product labels, which provide critical information about proper use and handling of pesticides.
- Agencies Should Develop Cost-Cutting and Cost-Avoidance Strategies. FLETC reported that in FY 2013 and 2014 the agency reviewed its service contracts to identity potential cost avoidance opportunities. As a result, FLETC reported avoiding roughly $8 million out of $81 million in service contracts by reducing or eliminating nonessential services, such as reducing hours for the information technology (IT) service desk support and consolidating security guard services.
However, opportunities exist for top management at selected agencies to take additional actions to ensure they maintain capacity to achieve their missions and avoid costs. For example, FLETC is working to develop an Online Campus initiative, which would provide distance-learning opportunities and represents a potential long-term cost avoidance strategy that could help the agency maintain capacity to provide necessary law enforcement training. However, FLETC has not yet finalized its plan for the Online Campus with steps and timeframes needed to ensure successful implementation. At ETA, the most recent recession tested the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program's capacity, but ETA has yet to systematically identify lessons learned to help ensure UI maintains capacity should workload increase again. Following through on these actions could help agencies better manage limited resources and maintain capacity to achieve their missions.
Some agency officials and stakeholders reported that actions taken by the selected agencies affected timeliness and service level for some programs. While some stakeholder organizations commended the agencies for their efforts to continue to achieve their missions with fewer resources, they also noted that some actions had negative effects on individuals, businesses, states, localities, and others. The effects they cited included delays in receiving unemployment benefits and disruptions to businesses resulting from delays in processing foreign labor applications and pesticide registration applications.
Why GAO Did This Study
Federal discretionary appropriations declined by roughly 12 percent between FY 2010 and 2015. To better understand issues agencies face in an environment of declining resources and how agencies could address them, GAO developed a framework in 2012 for examining agencies' efforts to manage declining resources.
GAO was asked to examine the specific actions agencies are taking to manage declining resources and the effects on services to the public. This report examined (1) to what extent selected agencies' actions to manage in an environment of declining resources aligned with GAO's framework and (2) the effects, if any, declines in discretionary spending after 2009 had on services to the public at selected agencies.
GAO applied its framework to three agencies selected based on budget data from FY 2010 through 2014. For the larger agencies (EPA and ETA), GAO selected two programs within each agency for review. GAO reviewed agency documents; and interviewed agency officials, program partners, and external stakeholders.
What GAO Recommends
GAO makes three recommendations, including that FLETC finalize its plan for the Online Campus and ETA systematically identify lessons learned by the UI program that could help it respond to future economic downturns. FLETC concurred. ETA did not state whether it concurred or not but stated it believed the recommendation does not fully recognize its existing efforts. GAO continues to believe the recommendation is valid as discussed in the report.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In response to our recommendation, in February 2017, FLETC published its Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2016-2018, outlining goals and objectives for addressing emerging challenges, such as current and future training capacity needs.
Recommendation: To help ensure that FLETC builds and maintains capacity to achieve its mission with existing levels of resources over the longer-term, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of FLETC to complete a revised strategic plan that encompasses the agency's long-term goals and objectives to address emerging challenges.
Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: On July 28, 2017, Federal Law Enforcement Centers reported taking steps toward implementation of this recommendation. Specifically, FLETC developed and approved a plan, known as the Acquisition Program Baseline (APB) for eFLETC, previously referred to as an Online Campus initiative. According to FLETC, the plan for eFLETC serves as a foundation for informative decision making and outlines key performance parameters, program schedule, and estimated life cycle cost estimate. For example, Phase 1 focuses on completing engineering, configuration and implementation of the secure cloud hosted platform which is required to deliver law enforcement education and training to federal law enforcement officers with DHS Personal Identity Verification (PIV) Cards. FLETC anticipates that the system will receive an Authority to Operate and achieve Initial Operating Capability in 4th quarter of fiscal year 2017 and Full Operational Capability expected to be achieved in 4th quarter of fiscal year 2018.
Recommendation: To help ensure that FLETC builds and maintains capacity to achieve its mission with existing levels of resources over the longer-term, as part of its strategic planning process, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of FLETC to finalize the plan, including the steps and time frames, needed to further implement its Online Campus initiative.
Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security
Comments: In correspondence to GAO, ETA indicated that it continues to be committed to systematically collect and share lessons learned from the most recent recession. According to ETA, in September 2018, the agency awarded a contract to conduct research on lessons learned and critical policy issues regarding the UI system in response to the Great Recession that began in 2007 and the economic recovery that followed. The study involves a survey of all states, in-depth site visits to a selected number of them, and a review of the extant research literature related to the topic.The primary objective of this study is to systemically identify, analyze, and report on the challenges that states experienced in administering their UI programs, and the states' responses to the rapidly increasing and decreasing demand on the UI program during and after the Great Recession. According to ETA, the study findings will be disseminated to state UI program administrators and other important stakeholders and will serve as a useful information source in advance of future economic dislocations. ETA expects the results and final report will be available in Fall 2020. The Department of Labor's Chief Evaluation Office has also posted a recently completed literature review entitled "Challenges and Strategies Used to Operate Unemployment Insurance Programs During the Great Recession" on its website. We will continue to monitor ETA's progress toward addressing our recommendation.
Recommendation: To help ensure that ETA continues to have the capacity to achieve its mission and manage changes in demand for services resulting from changes in the broader economy, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Administrator of ETA to systematically gather and evaluate information on the challenges that states faced administering the unemployment insurance program during the recession that began in 2007--such as rapidly ramping up staffing at the start of the recession and ramping down as the economy recovered--and identify and build upon any lessons learned from this experience that could be broadly shared to help the program respond to any changes in workload during a future economic downturn.
Agency Affected: Department of Labor