Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

2019 was a banner year for GAO podcasts. In addition to launching our new Deep Dig podcast series, we produced more podcasts than ever before—64 in total! In case you didn’t catch them all, today’s WatchBlog features a handful of podcasts from the end of 2019.

Nutrition Assistance for Older Adults

Federal nutrition guidelines are the basis for nutrition assistance programs that serve older adults. However, the guidelines don’t focus on the varying nutritional needs of many older adults—such as those over age 70 or those with common health conditions, like diabetes. Kathy Larin, a director in our Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, talks about why focusing on older adults in the next update to nutrition guidelines is important, and how federal agencies can better assure that older adults have the nutrition that they need. Check it out.


Imported Seafood Safety

Did you know that more than 90% of the seafood Americans eat is imported? If FDA it suspects that imported seafood may violate U.S. laws, it can detain the products at ports until the violation has been resolved—a process called an import alert. Listen to Steve Morris, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, discuss how FDA decides to remove import alerts, and our recommendations for improving the process.


Improving Naval Shipyards

The Navy’s public shipyards are critical to maintaining its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, as well as supporting its operations around the world. In 2017, we found the shipyards were in poor condition and not meeting the Navy’s needs. In response, the Navy developed a 20-year, $21 billion plan to fix them. Diana Maurer—a director in our Defense Capabilities and Management team—talked about our review of that plan. Hear what she had to say.


FEMA’s Wildfire Response and Recovery

In 2017 and 2018, wildfires in California killed 159 people and destroyed more than 32,000 structures, including many homes. In response, FEMA put about $2 billion toward housing, debris removal, and other assistance. Listen to Chris Currie from our Homeland Security and Justice team discuss the unique response and recovery challenges wildfires bring, as well as additional actions FEMA can take to better prepare for large-scale fires in the future.


If you don’t want to miss out on what we do in 2020, you can subscribe to our podcasts through iTunes or the RSS feed.

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Our Guide to Tech Readiness

The development of cutting-edge technologies is critical to many of the government’s most costly acquisition projects, including new weapons, satellites, nuclear facilities, and homeland security systems. The federal government spends billions of dollars acquiring these technologies. However, these technologies can cause program delays and cost increases if the government decides to use them in new systems before they are ready.

Our new Technology Readiness Assessment Guide can help system engineers, program managers, technology developers, and auditors evaluate whether technologies are mature enough to be integrated in a new product or system.

This guide outlines 5 steps and associated best practices for developing and producing high-quality technology readiness assessments that include:

  1. Preparing the assessment plan and selecting the team
  2. Identifying critical technologies
  3. Assessing critical technologies
  4. Preparing the assessment report
  5. Using the report’s findings

The methodology we’ve developed can be applied across large and small acquisition projects. We have also outlined a roadmap for preparing technology maturation plans, evaluating software, and enhancing technology assessments.

Hundreds of public comments have been incorporated into our guide since 2016.

Our Technology Readiness Assessment Guide is a companion to GAO’s cost estimating and assessment guide and the schedule assessment guide.

For more information, check out the guide.

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The Rankings Are In—GAO Again Named Among Best Places to Work in the Federal Government

Continuing our streak, GAO has again been named one of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. This year, we rose to 3rd among mid-size agencies—up one place from last year.  We also once again ranked #1 in our support of diversity among mid-size agencies.

Logo for The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government

U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro had this to say about the rankings:

This year’s list of the best places to work confirms GAO’s reputation as an employer of choice in the federal government.

The ratings reflect the high regard our employees have for the agency and their willingness to recommend GAO to others interested in public sector work.

Another point of pride is our continuing high score on diversity and inclusion.

Issued every year, the Partnership for Public Service’s rankings provide insights into how federal employees’ satisfaction with their jobs and offices. The 2019 ratings reflect the perspectives of more than 883,000 federal workers at 490 organizations, based on survey responses on a wide range of workplace topics.

Read our press release here and learn more about GAO’s work in our video.

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Home for the Holidays? Not So Fast…

Flights delayed or canceled, passengers bumped, family celebrations missed—we’ve all heard the air travel horror stories. What recourse do you have if it happens to you? Well, that can depend on what caused the problem. Today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at two issues that can cause unexpected “turbulence” in your air travel plans—information technology outages and denied boardings.

A Photo of an Airplane Window Overlooking the Wings of the Plane

We apologize for the inconvenience

In recent years, some airlines have had well-publicized information technology outages. For example, in June 2018, American Airlines subsidiary PSA Airlines experienced an IT issue that led to the cancellation of about 3,000 flights over the following week.
The federal government does not track airline IT outages or their effects directly. Using multiple sources, we identified 34 IT outages from 2015 through 2017 affecting 11 of 12 selected airlines. About 85% of these outages resulted in flight delays or cancellations.

Figure Showing Examples of Airline Information Technology (IT) Systems and Potential IT Outage Effects

If you’re inconvenienced by IT outages, what rights do you have? Federal consumer protections don’t specifically address IT outages, but other protections may apply. For example, if an IT outage delays your plane on the tarmac, there are restrictions on how long the airline can keep you on the plane. If an outage cancels or significantly delays your flight, you are entitled to a refund if you request it, or you may receive a voucher for food or lodging—depending on the airline’s policies.

Ticket to ride?

Having a ticket isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be able to get on the plane. There are several reasons why airlines may deny boarding to a passenger:

  • Overbooking: Airlines overbook flights to avoid losing money when passengers don’t show up for their flights. Passengers can get bumped when there are fewer no-shows than expected.
  • Safety: An unruly or intoxicated passenger can be denied boarding to protect other passengers and crew.
  • Operations or personnel needs: Airlines sometimes need to accommodate flight crews that need to get to different locations, or air marshals—who tend to book flights near departure times.

Airlines can ask you to volunteer to give up your seat in exchange for some benefit, such as a travel voucher.

Figure Showing Example of an Airline's Process to Identify Volunteers for Denied Boarding

But if there aren’t enough volunteers, you can still get bumped. What rights do you have if airlines don’t let you board? In some cases, federal consumer protections require airlines to compensate you.

The number of passengers denied boarding has generally decreased in recent years. Almost all of those were volunteers, but the few passengers who were bumped against their will may have experienced considerable inconvenience and expense.

Figure Showing Passengers Denied Boarding Between 2012-2018

The decrease in denied boardings could in part be the result of actions airlines have taken, such as:

  • Reducing or eliminating overbookings
  • Requesting volunteers early (e.g., at check-in)
  • Increasing and diversifying compensation for volunteers
  • Inviting passengers to propose acceptable compensation

That said, we hope you don’t have trouble getting home for the holidays after all.

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A GAO Photo Album

They say a picture is worth a thousand words—which is one reason our Watchdogs often snap photos on the audit trail to use as evidence in our reports.

In today’s WatchBlog, we’re highlighting some of the photos that helped to visually represent the results of our work in 2019.

Lingering oil

It can take decades and billions of dollars to undo the environmental damage from an oil spill. One of our audit teams captured this image of lingering oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Eleanor Island, Alaska during a review of federal restoration efforts.

Truck underride guards

A truck underride crash occurs when a car slides under a large truck, like a tractor-trailer. The Department of Transportation requires trailers to have a rear safety bar—known as an underride guard—to prevent underride crashes.

While on a site visit for a report on truck underride guards, our auditors happened to notice this damaged guard on the rear of a passing truck. Worry not, the team promptly called the number on the back of the truck to alert the company about the issue.

Hurricane damage

Recent hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding have highlighted the challenges the federal government faces in responding effectively to disasters. This photo of a motorboat washed ashore was snapped by one of our auditors in the small coastal town of Mexico Beach, Florida about a month after it was hit by Hurricane Michael.

We featured this photo in a testimony on our past and ongoing work on FEMA’s disaster preparedness, response, and recovery operations.

Visualizing environmental justice

Environmental justice seeks to address the disproportionately high health and environmental risks found among low-income and minority communities.

For example, California’s mostly minority and low-income community of West Oakland is surrounded by 3 freeways and a port. Consequently, its residents are exposed to diesel air pollution that is 3 times higher than that in the surrounding area. A GAO auditor captured this photo while visiting West Oakland for our review of federal environmental justice efforts.

Security measures on federal lands

Federal land management agencies have law enforcement divisions to help protect employees and facilities on nearly 700 million acres of land. To observe federal efforts to secure facilities and protect employees on federal lands, our auditors went to several regional and state offices and field units.

This collage shows examples of some of the internal and external security measures at some of the facilities they visited.

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The Importance of Good Oversight for Medicaid

Medicaid plays an important role in providing health care coverage for low-income, medically needy Americans. In 2018, Medicaid covered approximately 75 million people at a cost of about $629 billion. But overseeing this program can be challenging, given its size and complexity—which is why Medicaid has been on our High Risk List since 2003.

To help viewers get a quick overview of the current issues and challenges confronting the program, we just recently produced this short video examining Medicaid oversight.

Both the federal government and the states jointly fund Medicaid. Because states have flexibility to design their Medicaid programs within broad federal guidelines to meet their own needs, each state’s program is different. That’s part of why program monitoring is so important and complicated.

Good information is key to program oversight. However, available Medicaid data haven’t always shed light on how well the Medicaid program is operating.

For example, Congress established new federal rules in 2010 and 2016 for screening and enrolling health care providers in Medicaid. These rules are designed to exclude providers from Medicaid who don’t meet minimum standards, which can help prevent fraud, waste, and abuse.

Yet we recently found that not all states have implemented these rules, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services—which oversees states’ administration of Medicaid—doesn’t have a complete picture of state compliance. Read our report to learn more.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Carolyn Yocom at yocomc@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Expanding GAO’s Science & Technology Expertise

We provide Congress with nonpartisan and fact-based analysis of technological and scientific developments that affect our society, environment, and economy. To enhance our ability to do this, we established the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team in January 2019.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our efforts to put more science and technology (S&T) analysis into the hands of Congress.

Responding Quickly to Congress’s Priorities

In accordance with our STAA team plan, we have provided state-of-the-art scientific and technical information to the Congress, including:

We are also tackling additional topics to meet Congress’s growing demand for thorough and balanced analysis.

Graphic Showing Selected Ongoing GAO Science and Technology (S&T) Work

Meeting Congress’s Growing Needs

In its recent assessment of S&T policy, the National Academy of Public Administration recommended that “…existing legislative support agencies (i.e., the GAO and the CRS), both with long history and respected performance, be given authority and resources to further develop their ability to respond to congressional inquiries and expand their capabilities to close the S&T resources support supply gap.”

To address this need, we have taken steps to further expand our S&T capability.

For instance:

  • We have prioritized technology assessments that are fact-based, independent, nonpartisan, and responsive to the needs of Congress. We also now offer policy options as part of our technology assessment approach and have asked for public review and comment on our Technology Assessment Design Handbook.
  • We have successfully recruited top S&T talent. This includes engineers, chemists, biologists, physical scientists, and other technical experts who work in partnership with our extensive array of program and policy experts. Over the next several years, the STAA team’s plan is to grow to 140 people and add expertise in biological sciences, engineering, quantum computing, nuclear physics, physics/aerospace engineering, and data analysis.
  • We are working to create our own S&T advisory board and will continue expanding our networks of external experts and advisory boards.

We look forward to continue providing Congress with the kind of foresight, insight, and oversight that policymakers need to make informed decisions about science and technology issues.

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Federal Information Security: There’s Work to Do

Just about every federal government operation—from processing taxes and protecting national parks to coordinating military operations and delivering foreign aid—relies in some way on computers. Protecting government computer systems and the information stored in them is vital, and a 2014 law lays out requirements and steps federal agencies need to take to do so.

Are agencies doing a good job implementing the law? Today’s WatchBlog looks at our report on this subject. Read on and listen to our podcast with Greg Wilshusen.


Photo Showing Someone Typing on a Laptop

Information security shortcomings for individual agencies

We looked at a sample of 16 federal agencies and found that most of their information security policies and programs had weaknesses in 5 core areas of security control defined in the law. For example, 15 of the agencies did not adequately take steps to identify cybersecurity risks—and identifying risks is an important step toward mitigating them.

Figure Showing Number of 16 Selected Agencies with Deficiencies in Information Security Policies, Procedures, and Practices, by Core Security Function

The law also requires inspectors general to evaluate and report on information security at their respective agencies. We reviewed 24 of these reports and found that 18 inspectors general determined that their agency’s information security policies and practices were not effective. These reports showed that agencies had taken steps to protect their information systems but there were deficiencies in the protections in place and agencies still had a lot of progress left to make before their policies and programs could be considered optimal.

Government-wide challenges with information security

While information security is vital and agencies still have a lot of work to do, no one says this work is easy. Government information systems are complex and dynamic. They rely on different types of technologies to operate, they’re geographically dispersed, and they are interconnected with a variety of internal and external systems and networks like the Internet. Safeguarding them is a challenge.

But agencies are not alone in their efforts to address these challenges and implement the information security law—the Office of Management and Budget, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Homeland Security all have roles, too.

The law requires OMB to oversee agencies’ information security efforts and issue reports on their status. One way OMB fulfills these responsibilities is by holding cybersecurity review meetings with agencies. These meetings help agencies improve their information security programs and also help OMB oversee specific agency efforts. However, OMB met with only 3 agencies in 2018 compared to 24 in 2016.

For its role, NIST develops information security standards and provides guidance to agencies. In April 2019, for example, NIST provided agencies with updated guidance on vetting the security of mobile applications.

DHS develops operational directives related to information security—such as a directive that required agencies to stop using a particular brand of information security products—and oversees the directives’ implementation. We are looking at DHS’s efforts in a separate report.

We made 3 recommendations to OMB in our report. In addition, information security is on our High Risk List.

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Education for Students with Disabilities

In 1970, only 1 in 5 children with disabilities was educated in a public school, and many states had laws that excluded children with certain disabilities from school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act sought to change that by requiring that states provide a free appropriate public education to all students with disabilities.

This Friday marks the 44th anniversary of that law, and today’s WatchBlog looks at some of our work concerning students with disabilities.

Photo of a Classroom

Identifying and serving students with disabilities

IDEA requires states to identify, locate, and evaluate all children suspected of having a disability so they can get the services they need. But the percentages of children receiving special education services under the act varies across states—which raises concerns about whether all eligible students are being served.

We looked into why this variation exists, and found that IDEA gives states latitude in setting eligibility criteria and defining disability categories.  So, a child eligible for IDEA services in one state may be ineligible in another.

Challenges with identifying and evaluating children can also affect enrollment rates. For example, when children don’t speak English, school districts don’t always have staff that can evaluate them in their first language, or who are skilled in distinguishing language proficiency from disabilities.  Listen to our podcast with Jackie Nowicki, to learn more.

spacer Photo Showing a Room Used for Play-Based Assessment of Children Suspected of Having Disabilities

Services for students with disabilities in military families

Because they move frequently, military families with special needs face unique challenges with accessing services. For instance, with each move, a family with special needs often must find a new school that can provide appropriate special education services.

DOD helps families with special needs develop plans outlining the support they require. However, we found that the type, amount, and frequency of assistance varies widely for each branch of Military Service.  Among other things, we recommended that DOD assess whether each Service has enough family support personnel.

Counting incidents of restraint and seclusion

While restraint and seclusion of K-12 public school students nationwide is reported to be rare, it disproportionately affects students with disabilities and boys. The Department of Education has said these practices (broadly defined as restricting a student’s ability to move their torso, arms, legs, or head freely; and confinement alone to an area they can’t leave) should only be used when a child poses imminent danger.

We looked into whether districts are reporting all incidents of restraint and seclusion, as required. In the most recent available data (school year 2015-16), 70% of the more than 17,000 school districts in the U.S. reported zero incidents. However, we found that not all incidents were reported and that some of the largest districts in the country reported zeros erroneously. We made 4 recommendations for a more accurate count.

Transitioning to work and college for youth with Autism

Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, are less likely than youth with other disabilities to transition successfully from high school to work or college. Therefore, they may face a lifetime of reliance on public assistance.

Figure Showing Variation in Autism Spectrum Disorder Characteristics

IDEA requires that school districts help youth with ASD prepare for the transition to adulthood. We looked at the types services schools provide and found about 85% of districts in school year 2015-16, provided services such as instruction on life and social skills, and behavioral coaching. For example, school staff may role-play with students or take them to the local food court to practice social skills like ordering food, paying, and eating with friends.

Our podcast with Jackie Nowicki has more details:


You can read more on all of these topics here.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Jacqueline Nowicki at nowickij@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Protecting our Critical Infrastructure

We depend on the nation’s critical infrastructure—such as the systems that provide energy, transportation, communications, and financial services—to provide us with our basic needs.

In today’s WatchBlog, we explore federal efforts to protect some of our critical infrastructure from things like cyber-attacks and terrorism.

Oil and gas pipelines

More than 2.7 million miles of pipeline transport oil, natural gas, and other hazardous liquids needed for things like operating vehicles and heating homes. These pipelines run through both remote and urban areas, and are operated by more than 3,000 pipeline companies.

These pipelines are also vulnerable to physical attacks (such as firearms or explosives) and cyber-attacks. For example, a hacker could infiltrate a pipeline’s operational systems via the internet to disrupt service and cause spills, explosions, or fires. In fact, the energy sector accounted for 35% of critical infrastructure cyber incidents from 2013-2015—more than any other sector.

The Transportation Security Administration (along with other federal agencies) is responsible for protecting the nation’s pipelines. However, we found issues with how TSA manages its pipeline security efforts. For example, it has no process for determining when to update its guidelines for pipeline operations and related facilities.

Additionally, TSA’s plan to coordinate security incident responses with other federal agencies and industry stakeholders hasn’t been updated since 2010 . As a result, it doesn’t fully reflect developments in important areas like cybersecurity.

Chemical facilities

The nation’s chemical facilities could also be a target for terrorists. For example, hazardous chemicals could be released from a facility and hurt surrounding populations, or stolen and used as chemical weapons.

The Department of Homeland Security established the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, in accordance with statutory requirements, to identify high-risk chemical facilities and inspect them to ensure they comply with security standards. DHS also shares information about these facilities with local officials so that first responders are prepared for potential security incidents.

We found that DHS has completed a number of these inspections since 2013. However, first responders still may not have all the information they need to safely respond to incidents at these facilities.

To learn more about our work assessing federal efforts to protect critical infrastructure, click here.

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