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.
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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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GAO’s 2019 Performance and Accountability Report — A Record Year in Financial Benefits

Every year, we report on how we’ve supported Congress and improved the performance and accountability of the federal government.

This year, we are happy to report that we saved the government a record $214.7 billion—that’s $338 dollars for every dollar Congress invested in us!

Today’s WatchBlog explores some of the highlights of this year’s Performance and Accountability Report.

Saving money

We helped federal agencies save money in FY 2019 by making recommendations to prevent errors in federal payments, reduce fraud, and make better use of federal funds.

For instance:

  • We helped reduce the Department of Defense’s procurement costs for weapon systems acquisitions, which saved $136.1 billion.
  • We helped reduce the Department of Education’s cost estimates for student loans by $24.2 billion.
  • We helped improve the Internal Revenue Service’s efforts to combat identity theft refund fraud, which saved $900.2 million.

Improving federal operations

We also reported on other benefits resulting from our work—i.e., benefits that can’t be measured in dollars but led to improvements in federal programs and operations. We helped federal agencies make 1,418 of these improvements in FY 2019.

For example, our work helped federal agencies:

  • Test for and address lead in schools’ drinking water
  • Become aware of cybersecurity issues in major weapons systems
  • Better conduct a secure and cost-effective census
  • Improve educational opportunities for foster children
  • Enhance the tools used to detect potential fraud in asylum applications

Building bodies of knowledge

We also continued to build on bodies of work, such as protecting children and students, health care, technology and science, and disaster reform and recovery. For example, we:

  • Reported on the need to improve the accuracy of federal data on the restraint and seclusion of students, better ensure that children eligible for Medicaid receive the recommended health screenings, and improve oversight of nursing homes to protect residents from abuse
  • Established a Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team in January—reorganizing our existing science and technology functions into a single team, and bolstering our expertise through targeted hiring
  • Issued 18 products and made 52 recommendations related to disaster reform and recovery, including the status of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the need for FEMA to strengthen how it plans, coordinates, and tracks its disaster contracts

Assisting Congress

Our legislative impact was also significant. For example, in response to our work, Congress directed the Secretary of Transportation to create an advisory council to review options for improving disclosure of charges for air medical services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs to modernize and improve its appeals process, improve the accuracy and fairness of Gulf War Illness claims, and retrofit facilities to better care for women veterans.

In total, we received 671 requests for work from 90% of the standing committees of the Congress—supporting a broad range of congressional interests.

To learn more, check out our FY 2019 Performance and Accountability Report.

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Climate Change and the Nation’s Most Contaminated Hazardous Waste Sites

Climate change may increase the frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters, which could damage Superfund site—among the nation’s most contaminated hazardous waste sites. For instance, flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 damaged several Superfund sites in the greater Houston area.

Since most Superfund sites (about 90%) are located on nonfederal land, we identified nonfederal Superfund sites and the natural hazards (such as wildfires and flooding) that might impact them.

Check out our recent interactive graphic for details on each of these Superfund sites and their potential hazards. To learn more about climate change and Superfund sites, visit the full report page.

GIF of the superfund site interactive graphic

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Alfredo Gómez at gomezj@gao.gov.
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Can Irrigation Technology Address Water Scarcity? (Podcast and Infographic)

GAO keeps a close eye on the latest technologies, but today we’re looking at a truly ancient one: irrigated agriculture. Despite dating back at least 5,000 years, irrigation technology continues to improve. Micro irrigation, for example, applies water close to the crop for high efficiency. And precision agriculture uses satellite imagery, wireless moisture sensors, and other tools to optimize irrigation scheduling.

But are these technologies being used to save water in places facing water scarcity? And what options do policymakers have to reduce the impact of irrigated agriculture in those places?

Our new report tackles these questions. If you want an audio introduction, listen to our podcast with Tim Persons, GAO’s chief scientist:


For a visual snapshot, check out our infographic:

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The DATA Act: Checking in on Spending Transparency

Federal agencies spend over $4 trillion a year. But how that money is spent isn’t always easy to track.

That’s one reason why Congress passed the DATA Act—requiring agencies not only to publicly report spending data on USAspending.gov, but also to report high-quality data, so that legislators, government officials, and the public can better understand and compare how taxpayer money is used.

We just completed our second review of the quality—i.e., timeliness, completeness, and accuracy—of these data. Today’s WatchBlog shares some of what we found.

USAspending.gov photo

Data quality is better, but there is still room for improvement

We found that, overall, data quality has improved since our 2017 review. More agencies reported data on USAspending.gov and there were fewer inaccuracies.

The number of accurately reported data elements increased from 2017 to 2018
The number of accurately reported data elements increased from 2017 to 2018

While the improvements are encouraging, there is still room for progress. For example, 2 important data elements were reported improperly at least 10% of the time – Award Description and Primary Place of Performance Address. These elements are essential for spending transparency because they tell how and where federal money was spent.

Issues with these data elements were generally due to agencies’ having difficulty interpreting or following reporting standards correctly. For example, some agencies had difficulty reporting the Primary Place of Performance Address for grants that have multiple sub-recipients in different locations. Other agencies used technical jargon in their award descriptions, making the purpose of the award hard to understand.

Agencies are taking steps to standardize the way they report data, which could help address these data quality issues. However, OMB still needs to clarify definitions and provide additional guidance for certain data standards to help ensure agencies submit more consistent data, as we recommended in our 2017 review and reiterated again in this 2019 review.

Full disclosure

Along with improving data quality, the DATA Act seeks to improve federal data transparency. We found that 2 important data limitations are not fully transparent on USAspending.gov:

  1. Department of Defense procurement data isn’t shown on the website until 90 days after the agency reports it.
  2. The location of Medicare grants show the payment processing center, rather than the state or county of residence of the beneficiaries.

This lack of disclosure could lead users to draw the wrong conclusions. Someone interested in DOD spending data may not know that the amounts on USAspending.gov reflect a reporting delay. For Medicare data, spending reported for a payment processing center located in New York, could in fact be funds for Maine residents, potentially leading a user to misunderstand where and to whom Medicare dollars are going.

To improve transparency, we recommended that Treasury ensure both of these limitations are clearly displayed on USAspending.gov.

For more information about our review, check out our full report.

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