Summer Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

Watchdog Report Podcast LogoLooking for some entertainment as you try to beat the heat by the pool? Put on your headphones and check out some of our recent podcasts! Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on some of the podcasts you may have missed this summer. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Watchdog report on iTunes or our RSS feed!

Reducing food waste: Did you know that about 40% of the U.S. food supply goes uneaten? That’s about $200 billion a year that’s spent on growing, processing, and transporting food that is never consumed. Steve Morris, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, discussed our recent report on federal efforts to cut food waste. Check it out.

spacerImage Showing Historic World War I Era USDA Poster Aimed at Reducing Food Waste

Auctioning off first responders’ radio waves: The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to hold an auction in 2021 for access to a part of the radio spectrum currently used by police and fire departments across the country. We reviewed the effects this auction could have on the first responders whose communication systems rely on those waves. Listen to Andrew Von Ah from our Physical Infrastructure team talk about our findings.

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Image Showing Metropolitan Areas Using T-Band Spectrum (470 to 512 megahertz) for Public Safety and Availability of Alternative Spectrum Options

Proving your identity on federal websites: The federal government relies on commercial credit agencies to help verify the identities of people who apply for benefits online—such as asking personal questions from credit files. However, the 2017 Equifax data breach has raised questions about this practice. Nick Marinos, a director in our Information Technology and Cybersecurity team, talked about our report on how federal agencies can strengthen the security of their online identity verification processes.

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Image Showing Examples of Alternative Identity Verification and Validation Methods that Federal Agencies Have Reported Using

The financial risks of caring for retired family members: About 1 in 10 Americans per year cared for an elderly parent or spouse from 2011 through 2017, and women were more likely than men to provide care. Hear from Charlie Jeszeck, an Education Workforce and Income Security director, about the effects that caregiving can have on family members’ long-term financial security.

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Table Showing Who Received Care from Family Caregivers 2011-2017


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NASA Celebrates Moon Landing 50th Anniversary

photo of the earth from spaceFifty years ago this Saturday, humankind took a giant leap as NASA astronauts took their first small steps on the Moon. In today’s WatchBlog, we discuss some of NASA’s recent advancements since that giant leap, as well as findings from our most recent reviews of the agency’s major projects.

New launches and landings

Our annual “Quick Look” at NASA’s major acquisitions highlights some of the agency’s more recent advancements. For example, NASA recently:

  • launched the Parker Solar Probe, the first NASA mission to visit a star. The spacecraft will orbit the Sun 24 times to gather information about solar wind.
  • landed a spacecraft on Mars that will help further understanding of how terrestrial planets formed and evolved.
  • launched spacecraft that will collect data on Earth’s rates of ground water depletion and polar ice melt, and help improve planning for droughts and floods.

In addition, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX and Boeing are each developing vehicles that will eventually transport astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX successfully held the first test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft last March. This flight demonstrated that the Crew Dragon could dock with the ISS and safely return to Earth.

Artist Depiction of Contractors' Crew Vehicles near the International Space Station

Managing acquisitions to manage achievement

As NASA continues to push the boundaries of scientific achievements, staying focused on acquisition management can help it achieve even greater returns on its forays into human spaceflight.

NASA’s acquisition management has been on our High Risk List since 1990, and some of our recently issued work demonstrated that NASA needs to devote more attention to this area. For example:

Transparency in major project costsIn June 2019, we looked at the human spaceflight programs, which include 2 of NASA’s largest projects, the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle. NASA and Congress originally agreed to launch a test flight in November 2018—an uncrewed mission as a first step in planning to transport astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, to the Moon, and eventually, Mars.

But we found that, after a series of delays, the test mission could happen as late as June 2021: 31 months beyond the original date. Meanwhile, NASA’s approach to estimating cost growth for SLS and Orion is misleading—leaving Congress and the public to accept further delays without a clear understanding of how much they cost.

Long-term planning for human spaceflight—The human spaceflight programs plan to take astronauts further into space in future missions. However, NASA has not taken action to develop long-term cost estimates for Space Launch System, Orion, and the ground systems that would help determine the affordability of future plans. Further, the Commercial Crew Program has incrementally delayed its first planned mission by more than 2 years. If it isn’t ready by September 2020, NASA doesn’t have a comprehensive backup plan for transporting U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.

A Model of the Orion Crew Module in the Gulf of Mexico After a Test

Contractor management: In June 2019, we found that the human spaceflight programs have awarded contractors hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives for good performance, despite these programs being years behind schedule and millions over cost. Additionally, Commercial Crew program officials told us they have struggled to establish schedules with Boeing and Space X due to constantly fluctuating dates.

Taking actions in these areas for improvement will help NASA achieve its recently announced goal: returning to the Moon in 2024.

For more, check out our High Risk List page on NASA acquisition management.


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Bank Supervision: What’s Changed Since the Financial Crisis

Photo of Wall StreetWhen big banks failed during the 2007–2009 financial crisis, it wasn’t a complete surprise. Federal bank supervisors had found underlying risks at those banks, but didn’t always act on those findings to help banks be better actors.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our report on how large bank supervision has changed since the crisis.

Who are the supervisors?

Supervisors of large banks work for these federal banking regulatory agencies:

  • the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  • the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
  • the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency

What do they do?

Supervisors from these agencies examine large banks over the course of a 12- or 18-month cycle. These examinations generally include assessments of the bank’s:

Capital adequacy: How much capital the bank has vs. its potential losses.

Asset quality: The risk of potential losses for each type of asset the bank has.

Management: The bank’s ability to react to financial stress.

Earnings: The bank’s ability to expand and compete in the market, based on the company’s growth, stability, and other factors.

Liquidity: Availability of assets that can easily be converted to cash.

Sensitivity to market risk: The degree to which changes in market conditions can adversely affect the bank.

This rubric is known as “CAMELS” and is a tool for evaluating the soundness of banks on a uniform basis and for identifying those banks requiring special attention or concern.

Supervisors can write letters to a bank after certain examinations. At the end of the supervisory cycle, supervisors issue a report to the bank. Letters and reports may include “supervisory concerns”—recommendations and matters requiring attention that the bank is expected to address within specific time frames.

How could they improve?

Since the financial crisis, supervisors told us that they had incorporated more forward-looking elements into examinations—which seek to mitigate risks before they affect the bank’s financial condition. For example, regulators perform “stress tests” to evaluate whether a bank has enough capital to survive hypothetical bad scenarios, like a downturn in the real estate market.

In addition to what they’re already doing, we recommended that some supervisors could communicate more complete information to bank boards of directors. For example, they could include the reason for a deficiency and its potential effect on the bank’s operations. We made additional recommendations for some regulatory agencies about tracking trends in assessment data and escalating supervisory concerns—both of which could help ensure that banks take more timely corrective actions.

Check out our full report for more.


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Need an Expert? We Can Help!

Image Showing the 'Find an Expert' LogoDid you know that GAO’s executives often speak publicly about our work?

To make it easier for news media, congressional staff, and the public to connect with us, we launched a one-stop database that can help easily locate one of our experts. The Find an Expert section on our website improves public access to the wealth of non-partisan, fact-based information GAO has developed over the years through our audits and investigations.

If you have specific questions about our work—e.g., on retirement issues or cybersecurity—you can search for one of our experts by name or by area of expertise and find their contact information.

Clicking on a name will also pull up biographical information, an official photo, and a list of their recent reports.

And, as always, you can still work with the Office of Public Affairs to find an expert.

Visit our website for more information.


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Troubling Trends in DOD’s Weapon Programs

Photo of Four F-35 Aircraft FlyingThe Department of Defense’s 82 largest complex programs cost an estimated $1.69 trillion. We annually assess how DOD is managing and overseeing these major acquisition programs in our “Quick Look” reports.

In today’s WatchBlog, we discuss some of our observations from this year’s “Quick Look” at DOD. Listen to our podcast with Director Shelby Oakley, and then read on to learn about what we found.

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Costs trending up

In the past few years, we found that newer programs seemed to be doing a better job staying within budget estimates than programs had in the past. However, in this year’s assessment, we found that this trend was slipping for DOD’s major programs.

Most troubling is that DOD’s newer programs—those started after major acquisition reforms were adopted in 2010 to limit cost increases—now show overall recent cost growth.

Older programs, less competition

One of the primary drivers of the overall cost increase in the portfolio is that programs in this year’s portfolio are about 4 months older than last year and nearly 3 years older than in 2012. This is partly because DOD increased quantities of older systems and introduced new capabilities and upgrades by adding on to existing programs (such as with the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and the Virginia Class Submarine)—making these programs longer and costlier on average—instead of starting new ones.

However, this approach runs counter to a best practice—new capabilities should be structured as separate acquisition programs in order to improve transparency and accountability.

The Virginia Class Submarine (SSN 774 Block V)

Photo of Virginia Class Submarine (SSN 774 Block V)

Additionally, DOD’s contracts are often awarded without full and open competition. We found that DOD did not compete 67% of its major contracts. It also awarded 47% of its contracts to 5 corporations. A competitive environment saves money, which could mean the department is overpaying for goods and services.

Image Showing DOD Programs Competed One-Third of Currently Reported Major Contracts with Nearly Half of Awards Concentrated within Five Companies

Key acquisition practices

We’ve reported on DOD’s acquisition management for years, particularly examining how the Department’s weapons programs move through 3 important phases: technology development, system development, and production. These phases matter because moving forward without adequate knowledge for the next phase can derail a program. For example, weapon programs that enter development before their technologies are mature can later experience costly, time consuming design changes if those technologies don’t ultimately work exactly as initially planned.

However, we found that most of the 45 programs we surveyed moved through the acquisition lifecycle without collecting some key information in these stages.

Image Showing the Department of Defense (DOD) Acquisition Process

This lack of knowledge can affect the entire acquisition lifecycle of a program. Our work has linked such knowledge deficits to the risk of unexpected costs.

Moving forward

DOD has room to reverse the negative cost trends through strong leadership and insistence that programs implement knowledge-based best practices. However, this need for effective leadership comes at a time when DOD is making widespread reforms to how it oversees acquisition programs.

At the direction of Congress, DOD has decentralized oversight of its programs in an effort to speed up its processes. Oversight is now primarily the responsibility of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and it is therefore up to the military services to ensure that programs implement knowledge-based best practices.

Want to know more? Check out our full reports on acquisition reform and DOD’s major weapons systems.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Shelby Oakley at oakleys@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Finding Common Ground on Flood Insurance Reform

Photo Showing Marine Debris in the Florida KeysAs we enter the peak of hurricane season, many homeowners have wisely chosen to protect their properties by purchasing flood insurance.

However, the nation’s taxpayers remain largely unprotected as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is poised to continue to take on more debt.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at the nation’s flood insurance program, and what could be done to fix it.

How we got here

Congress created NFIP in 1968 with 2 competing goals: keeping flood insurance affordable and the program fiscally solvent. However, a historical focus on affordability has come at the expense of solvency.

In particular, Congress has required the program to charge discounted premium rates to many policyholders, even though these rates do not reflect the full risk of flood losses. This has led to a shortfall in revenue, and NFIP has not had sufficient funds to pay claims.

Additionally, because Congress has not appropriated funding to pay for this shortfall, NFIP has borrowed from the Treasury (i.e., taxpayers) to do so—to the tune of $36.5 billion since 2005. For these reasons, we placed NFIP on our High Risk List in 2006.

Figure Showing National Flood Insurance Program Annual Year-End Outstanding Debt to Treasury, Fiscal Years 1995-2017

How we fix it

Our April 2017 report outlines a roadmap for comprehensive reform that could improve the program’s solvency and enhance the nation’s resilience to flood risk.

With NFIP’s authorization again set to expire in September 2019, Congress has another opportunity to make significant changes to the program.

One of the main challenges with reform is trying to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable divide of affordability versus solvency. We found that full-risk premium rates for all policies, with appropriated means-based subsidies, could help address this issue because:

  • Full-risk premium rates would remove subsidies from those who don’t need them, helping improve solvency, and also more accurately signal the true flood risk to property owners.
  • Means-based subsidies would ensure that property owners who need help will get it.
  • Having Congress explicitly appropriate for the subsidies would make the true cost of the subsidy transparent to taxpayers.

While comprehensive reform of the program should also address the other issues we’ve identified, addressing the affordability/solvency trade-off could be an important first step to putting NFIP on a sustainable path, while protecting both policyholders and taxpayers.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Alicia Puente Cackley at cackleya@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.

 

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Is the Cloud Saving the Government Money?

Photo Showing the Homeland Security Information Network, One Example of a Federal System Using Cloud ServicesHave you ever wondered how the federal government provides important public services—like helping secure major sporting events or providing public access to weather data?

Or how the Treasury manages supplies for printing currency, or the military transports cargo around the world?

The answer: it’s in the cloud. Today’s WatchBlog explores government cloud computing and whether these services save taxpayer money.

Using cloud services

Each year, the federal government spends approximately $90 billion on IT. To deliver better IT services for less money, the government began requiring agencies in 2010 to move to cloud services when feasible.

Cloud services provide access to shared resources (networks, servers, and data storage that multiple agencies can use) more quickly and at a lower cost than individual agencies can.

For example:

  • The Department of Homeland Security migrated its information sharing network to the cloud in 2017—ensuring a continuously available network for law enforcement and emergency response during major sporting events and natural disasters.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deployed public weather websites to the cloud in 2017 to provide timely access to weather data during hurricanes and other extreme weather events.
  • Treasury migrated its system for tracking paper, ink, and other supplies for printing currency and securities to the cloud in 2012, improving its ability to determine how much currency to produce.
  • DOD’s U.S. Transportation Command began to transition all computer systems that move cargo and passengers worldwide to the cloud in 2018—helping ensure the systems are more secure and continuously available.

Saving money

We reviewed 16 agencies to determine how much they saved after moving to cloud services.

Between 2014 and April 2019, 13 of the agencies reported that they had saved $291 million in total.

However, officials from the 13 agencies stated they were only able to track some savings data on an ad hoc basis for certain cloud investments. In addition, 3 agencies (DOD, State Department, and Social Security Administration) couldn’t provide savings data for any cloud investments.

Agencies identified 3 factors that impacted their efforts to provide savings data:

  • Untracked or hard-to-track savings data. DOD reported that they did not have the management system capability to track these types of data. The State Department reported not having reliable data because they were developing a tracking capability.
  • Moving to the cloud resulted in no savings. Several agencies reported that they did not save money because cloud services either enabled them to buy previously unavailable capabilities or necessitated new requirements, both of which resulted in no savings.
  • OMB guidance doesn’t require agencies to explicitly report cloud savings. Multiple agencies reported that they had to specifically collect these data to meet our data request.

As a result, agencies couldn’t provide savings data for 84% of the cloud investments that we reviewed. It is therefore likely that agency-reported cloud savings data were underreported.

Moving forward

OMB reported that agencies don’t have to specifically identify savings related to cloud computing unless they choose to do so.

We recommended that OMB improve its guidance on reporting cloud savings and that agencies track cloud savings.

To learn more, read our full report.


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Following the Paper Trail of Federal Retirement Processing

Photo of 2019 FERS Retirement FormThe Office of Personnel Management receives over 100,000 federal retirement applications each year. But the time it takes to process these applications can often be delayed. In fact, between 2014 and 2017, OPM didn’t meet its goal of processing most applications within 60 days. Today’s WatchBlog explores some of the reasons why from our recent report.

The retirement application paper trail

OPM manages the federal retirement program, which covers more than 2.4 million active employees. Almost 32% of federal employees who were on board at the end of FY17 would be eligible to retire in the next 5 years.

When employees are ready to retire, they submit retirement applications in paper form to their agency’s human resources office. The process is complete when an individual begins receiving regular monthly benefit payments.

Figure Showing Overview of Federal Retirement Application Process

Over several decades, OPM has attempted to move away from paper-based functions and replace antiquated information systems. However, the agency has experienced numerous challenges and has a history of undertaking modernization projects that didn’t yield the intended outcomes.

Compiling accurate information

Agencies we interviewed use 3 strategies to compile accurate retirement applications: they provide retirement counseling; conduct retirement application training on various topics, like retirement eligibility; and have procedures for compiling applications, such as checklists.

Figure Showing Selected Agencies Use Three Strategies to Compile Accurate Retirement Applications

Nonetheless, OPM officials told us that about 10% of applications are missing information such as a form or signature.

Why the delay?

Between 2014 and 2017, OPM didn’t meet its goal of processing most retirement applications within 60 days. OPM identified 3 main reasons for processing delays and has taken actions for each area.

  1. Continued reliance on paper applications and manual processing contributes to delays. While OPM has developed a strategic vision for modernizing the application process, it was unable to provide estimated time frames or costs.
  2. Insufficient staffing is a problem, particularly during peak season, according to OPM. To address this issue, OPM uses overtime pay and has hired additional staff. However, OPM generally doesn’t assess the effectiveness of these actions or whether they reduce delays.
  3. Incomplete applications also increase processing time. OPM provides assistance to agencies through guidance, communication through liaisons and email, and monthly error reports to agencies which include information on the type of error found and the volume of applications with the same error. However, agency officials we interviewed said that parts of the error report weren’t user-friendly, which may limit its usefulness in improving retirement applications.

Further actions OPM can take

We made 6 recommendations for additional actions OPM can take to improve retirement processing times. For example, OPM should:

  • develop a retirement IT modernization plan for initial project phases
  • develop and implement policies for assessing staffing strategies intended to improve processing times
  • determine if there are cost-effective ways to make the retirement application error report more user-friendly

Read our report to learn more.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Yvonne Jones at jonesy@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Increased Federal Role in the Housing Finance System

housing thumbnailHousing finance is a complex, multi-trillion-dollar industry that played a major role in the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Two of our recent reports analyzed changes in the market since the crisis and their effect on taxpayers. We discuss our findings in today’s WatchBlog.

The process of pooling mortgages

After lenders make mortgage loans to homebuyers, they often sell the loans to third parties who pool these loans into mortgage-backed securities. Investors can then buy and trade these securities, similar to stocks and corporate bonds.

This process is intended to provide lenders with funding to make more loans and offer lower interest rates to borrowers.

Government’s expanding role in housing finance

The main federal entities involved in housing finance include:

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are government-sponsored enterprises (i.e., congressionally chartered private corporations that are publicly owned) that issue securities and guarantee the payment of principal and interest to investors in the event that borrowers default.
  • Ginnie Mae, which is a federally owned corporation within the Department of Housing and Urban Development that guarantees securities that are composed entirely of federally insured mortgages. Unlike Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Ginnie Mae doesn’t issue securities.

Leading up to the 2007-09 financial crisis, some borrowers defaulted on their mortgages and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac suffered losses because of their guarantee to pay securities investors. In 2008, the federal government took control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac out of concern their failure could upset U.S. financial stability.

Even though the market has largely recovered, the federal role in the housing market has increased. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae issue or guarantee about 95% of new mortgage-backed securities, compared to about 50% in 2006.

Figure Showing Single-Family Mortgage-Backed Security Issuance, Federal and Private, 2003-2017, Adjusted for Inflation

Ginnie Mae’s risk to taxpayers

Notably, Ginnie Mae’s market share has grown dramatically. In 2007, it guaranteed $500 billion of mortgage-backed securities, and in 2018, it guaranteed $2 trillion—exposing it and taxpayers to a greater risk of loss.

Our recent report found that Ginnie Mae faces resource and risk management challenges:

  • Ginnie Mae operates with a limited staffing budget and relies heavily on contractors.
  • Ginnie Mae has not assessed whether its mortgage-backed securities guaranty fee—which, among other things, helps ensure timely payment to investors—is set at an appropriate level in light of its growing risk exposure.
  • HUD faces challenges in its oversight of Ginnie Mae.

To address these challenges, we recommended that Ginnie Mae review its staffing practices and conduct additional risk management analysis. We also suggested that Congress consider legislation to address these challenges and to reform Ginnie Mae’s oversight structure so it can better address its risks.

The need for housing finance reform

A decade after the crisis, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac remain under government control—leaving taxpayers on the hook for any potential losses. Our recent report found that lack of action to resolve the long duration of the government’s takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has led to uncertainty among market participants.

Congress and others have suggested different ways to reform the system to lessen the government’s role and address weaknesses. We reviewed 14 reform proposals and found that while they generally included certain key elements—such as addressing fiscal exposure—many proposals didn’t have clear goals or a system-wide focus. For instance, 7 proposals didn’t consider how reform might impact other federal entities, including Ginnie Mae.

We suggested that Congress consider legislation for the future federal role in housing finance that has clear goals and considers Ginnie Mae.

We also continue to include housing finance on our high-risk list.


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The Secret Service’s IT Workforce

In addition to protecting the President, the Secret Service also investigates and prevents financial and electronic crimes—such as identity theft, counterfeiting, and computer-based attacks on the nation’s financial, banking, and telecommunications infrastructure. To do this, it relies heavily on its IT infrastructure and workforce.

In May, the Secret Service welcomed a new director, James Murray, who inherited a number of longstanding workforce issues, such as low employee morale and retention issues.

We recently looked at how the Secret Service is managing these issues for its IT workforce. Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Planning and management

There are a number of leading practices that can help federal agencies effectively plan and manage their workforces. We found that the Secret Service has fully implemented some of these leading practices in its IT department.

For example, the agency has worked to determine root causes of employee morale problems by analyzing employee survey results using techniques like comparing demographic groups, benchmarking against similar organizations, and linking findings to action plans. Additionally, officials have established and tracked metrics for improving low employee morale, and begun to provide regular performance feedback.

Room for improvement

However, the Secret Service hasn’t fully implemented other leading practices related to strategic planning, recruitment and hiring, training and development, employee morale, and performance management.

For instance:

  • The Secret Service has taken steps to establish a strategic workforce planning process for its IT workforce. However, its Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) did not reliably determine the number of IT employees it needs to support the office’s functions.
  • The OCIO implemented recruiting and hiring plans but had not established and tracked metrics for monitoring the effectiveness of these recruitment and hiring activities for its IT workforce.
  • The OCIO was in the process of developing a training program for its IT employees but had not yet defined required training for these staff.
  • The Secret Service has established and tracked metrics for improving low morale; however, it had not demonstrated sustained improvement in the morale of its IT staff.
  • The Secret Service requires leadership to make distinctions between levels of staff performance. However, the performance plans for IT staff did not identify performance expectations related to all technical competencies.

We recommended 9 actions the Secret Service should take to improve the management of its IT workforce, including regularly analysis to ensure that its employees have the necessary skills.

To learn more, read our full report.


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