Creature Comforts in the Great Outdoors

Planning that big summer trip to Jellystone (or one of the non-fictitious U.S. national parks)? Visiting one of the many concessions services overseen by the National Park Service is one way to avoid Yogi Bear’s creative attempts to swipe your pic-a-nic basket.

Through concessions contracts, companies and individuals (known as “concessioners”) operate businesses such as lodges, restaurants, and recreational services in National Parks. The Park Service has faced challenges managing these contracts in the past, so today’s WatchBlog takes a look at how it’s doing now.

Glacier National Park, Montana | Source: National Park Service, Jacob W. FrankHow businesses provide the not-so bare necessities

The first director of the Park Service, Stephen Mather, highlighted the importance of concessions operations when he said, “Scenery is a hollow enjoyment to the tourist who sets out in the morning after an indigestible breakfast and a fitful night’s sleep on an impossible bed.”

To get concessioners to make the parks more accommodating, the Park Service follows this 3-step process:  (1) developing a prospectus, which provides information on the concessions operation and the business opportunity it presents to potential bidders; (2) evaluating proposals and selecting the winning bid; and (3) managing the awarded contract.

Summary of the National Park Service's Concessions Program(Excerpted from GAO-17-302)

As of April 2016, the National Park Service had 488 concessions contracts in more than 100 parks. In 2015, these operations collectively generated about $1.4 billion in gross revenues and paid about $104 million in franchise fees to the Park Service.  And Yogi can be distracted by so much more than food.  Services most commonly offered under these contracts include

  • guide services and outfitters
  • retail operations
  • rentals
  • transportation
  • food service operations
  • horse and mule operations
  • water guides
  • lodging

Some challenges are not unbearable

In 2000, we identified three management challenges for the concessions program:

  • Inadequate staff qualifications and training. The Park Service’s concessions staff is responsible for ensuring that the 3-step process outlined above is effectively executed.  In 2000, we found that the staff did not have the business, financial, or contracting backgrounds needed for success.
  • A backlog of expired and extended contracts. Concessioners under short-term extensions or nearing the ends of their contracts were less likely to invest to make capital improvements in facilities—leading to varying conditions in lodging facilities across parks.
  • Lack of accountability in the concessions program. The Chief of Concessions had no direct authority over concessions programs in individual parks, and regional directors were not holding park superintendents responsible for the results of their concessions programs.

Since then, we’ve found the Park Service has made some improvements, such as hiring people with relevant skills or educational backgrounds, developing several training classes to help improve their skills, and reducing the percentage of extended contracts, from about 45 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2016.

Yet concessioners and park officials say the agency still doesn’t always have enough staff to adequately manage concessions contracts and has difficulty generating competition for contracts. In addition, some concessioners said it was challenging to determine how to account for maintenance or capital improvements on buildings or land they have been assigned, such as hotels or restaurants.  For example, one concessioner said it was confusing to determine which category of funds to use for improvements made as part of one project. As a result, the concessioner was still trying to determine how to account for different parts of a project that was completed years ago. As you can see, a single project to update a lodge room could involve four different categories of funding.

Figure 2: Example of Potential Types of Repairs or Improvements to a Lodge Room at a National Park and How They Might be Funded(Excerpted from GAO-17-302)

While the Park Service’s strategic plan recognizes many of the challenges we’ve identified, it has not established targets or timeframes to address them.

We recommended ways to improve the Park Service’s concessions program, including better defining the agency’s performance goals so that it can measure progress toward achieving them.

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Here Comes the Sun

Rooftop solar panels, smart thermostats, residential batteries, and other tech may help you manage your energy use, generate electricity, and lower your utility bills. For example, homeowners can use solar systems to generate clean electricity to power their home and electric car.

But too much customer-generated electricity could strain the local electrical grid and lead to higher infrastructure costs if solar systems and other technologies are deployed without regard to grid conditions.

So, how does this all work? Today’s WatchBlog takes a look at these solar residential systems.

Residential Rooftop Solar System

(Excerpted from GAO-17-142)

Let the sunshine in

Traditionally, Americans have had few incentives—or even the ability—to adjust how much electricity they use in response to the changing costs of producing electricity.

However, in recent years, new technologies have hit the market that are changing the relationship between producers and consumers of electricity. For example, consumers can install residential solar systems to generate their own electricity, and battery systems to store electricity for later use.

Figure 3: Example of a Residence with Technologies that Generate, Store, and Manage Consumption of Electricity

(Excerpted from GAO-17-142)

Moreover, these systems have come down in price. For example, a residential solar system that could produce 6-kilowatts would have cost about $51,000 in 2009, whereas in 2015, it would cost about half that ($25,000).

Figure 5: Declining Cost of Residential Solar Systems(Excerpted from GAO-17-142)

Expanding solar systems

The total number of residential customers with solar systems increased sevenfold from 2010 to 2015, and every state saw more customers with residential solar systems over this time period. However, certain states, such as California and Hawaii, accounted for most of the growth.

Yet customers with solar systems still represent a very small portion of overall electricity customers—about 0.7 percent of U.S. residential customers in 2015.

Federal and state policies are trying to encourage homeowners to invest in solar systems and other residential technologies. For example, the federal investment tax credit can reduce some of the up-front costs of installing solar systems, and customers in 14 states can receive additional tax credits. Moreover, 41 states require electricity suppliers to credit customers for the electricity they send to the electrical grid.

Keeping the lights on?

But the news isn’t all sunny. Grid operators told us that they are seeing some challenges from more homes using solar energy. In some areas of Hawaii, for example, solar systems have generated more electricity than their local area of the grid was built to handle—and the resulting infrastructure upgrades raised prices for customers. However, grid operators reported that these issues have been relatively minor given the overall low use of residential solar.

Still, some policymakers are trying to alleviate these solar growing pains. For example, state regulators in New York and California recently required electricity suppliers to identify areas where solar systems and other technologies could provide the greatest benefit, given local grid conditions. In the long term, New York regulators are considering how to modify electricity prices to encourage customers to install and use these technologies to benefit the grid as opposed to increasing the strain on the system.

Watchdog ReportTo learn more about what residential solar may mean for you, read our full report and listen to Frank Rusco, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, discuss incentives to encourage these technologies, as well as their potential benefits and challenges.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Frank Rusco at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact
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Information Technology and Veterans Affairs

Veterans thumbnailAvid readers of the WatchBlog have seen some of our many posts on veterans’ access to health care and other support services, such as disability payments. Despite years of attempts to correct ongoing problems with health care and disability benefits, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to struggle, in part because of issues with the information technology that underpins these vital systems—one of the reasons it’s on our High Risk list. In addition, VA has had other IT problems as well, such as slow consolidation and closure of its data centers.

Today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at some of these IT challenges.

Old software and systems continue to plague VA

Managing Risks and Improving VA Health CareAlthough VA has annually spent around $4 billion on IT over the past few years, it continues to lag in updating the IT infrastructure supporting its health care and disability benefits services.

  • In 2010, we reported that after VA spent $127 million and 9 years updating its 30-year-old medical appointment scheduling system, it decided to procure a new scheduling system instead of implementing the updates. And although we recommended six ways VA could improve this new system, as of May 2017 it had not fully addressed them.
  • We also found that VA had taken steps to implement a new system to process disability benefits, but that it didn’t know how much the system would ultimately cost or when it would be complete. In the meantime, VA continues to use a 51-year old Benefits Delivery Network—not due to retire until 2018.

In addition to the incomplete modernization efforts mentioned above, VA has made several efforts to link and coordinate its own health record IT systems with the Department of Defense’s. After our repeated calls for DOD and VA to eliminate duplication between their electronic health record systems, the VA Secretary recently announced that the department will adopt the same system that DOD is currently acquiring.

Data center consolidation lags at VA

One way VA could make its IT systems perform better is by consolidating some of its data centers. This is part of a government-wide issue: as federal agencies have modernized systems and put more services online, this increasing demand has led to a dramatic rise in the number—and costs—of federal data centers.

To help address this, in 2010, the Office of Management and Budget launched an initiative aimed at reducing the number of data centers to improve efficiency and save costs. In addition, OMB created target metrics for agencies participating in the initiative, focusing on data center energy, labor, and storage costs.

Yet, we found that VA’s data center consolidation and closure lag behind other departments. Specifically, VA had closed only 20 out of its 356 data centers through fiscal year 2015, and it hadn’t met any of the OMB’s nine target metrics for data center optimization.

You can learn more about VA IT issues by checking out these results on our website.

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The Evolving U.S. Military Presence on Guam

thumbnail international affairsThe island of Guam located in the Pacific Ocean has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Over the years, the United States has maintained a military presence on the island to support and defend its interests in the western Pacific Ocean. Starting around 2022, the Department of Defense expects to further grow that presence by moving approximately 4,100 Marines from Japan to Guam. But will Guam be ready?

Today’s WatchBlog explores the past and future of U.S. military presence on Guam.

A long military history

Guam has been home to many different military units over the past 60 years—it was especially active during the Vietnam War as a waystation for U.S. bombers.

Today, at least 16,400 military members and their dependents are stationed on Guam, most of whom work at the U.S. Naval Base Guam at Apra Harbor or at Andersen Air Force Base.

Figure 1: Selected DOD Facilities on Guam(Excerpted from GAO-14-82)

Going forward

DOD is preparing to construct the infrastructure it needs to support the Marines that will be relocated. However, we’ve found a number of risks to DOD’s construction costs and schedules.

  • Construction labor shortage: DOD needs 2,800 foreign laborers to help with construction, and Guam relies on the H-2B visa program to fill these positions. However, approval rates for these visas decreased in 2016. Military and government of Guam officials told us that construction contractors have had trouble getting approvals for these visas to fill skilled labor positions.
  • Explosive-ordnance detection: Whenever construction occurs on Guam, DOD must first look for potential explosive ordnance buried underground from prior conflicts. When contractors scan for ordnance, they have to check out everything that sets off the detectors—including tin cans and scrap metal. This can significantly delay construction projects. For example, the Navy experienced a $4.9-million cost increase and a 10-month delay for a utilities project because the contractor found more of this non-ordnance material than predicted in the initial contract.

Figure 8: Explosive-Ordnance Detection and Removal at a Utilities Project in Guam(Excerpted from GAO-17-415)

  • Cultural-artifact discovery and preservation: Digging up the island can unearth pieces of its history and these cultural artifacts must be preserved. Although there have been efforts to streamline the discovery and preservation process, it can be lengthy. For example, one construction project could require DOD to preserve artifacts on 21 historically significant sites—which may result in additional costs and delays. Yet DOD has not fully planned for such delays.

Figure 9: Cultural Artifacts Discovered during Construction at Various Department of Defense Sites, Guam(Excerpted from GAO-17-415)

  • Endangered-species protection: Guam is also home to endangered species. To help ensure construction doesn’t disturb them, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service develops protection plans. However, these plans take time to produce. For example, there were delays after discovering endangered orchid and butterfly species on the sites of two DOD construction projects. But again, DOD did not fully consider such delays in its planning.

To address these types of cost and schedule risks, we recommended that DOD complete a Risk Management Plan for its buildup in Guam. To find out more, check out our full report.

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Mission Accomplished? What DOD Needs to Do to Address Its Key Challenges

5 key challengesDefending the nation is no easy task. DOD faces a wide array of evolving threats. And more than a decade of warfare has taken its toll on DOD personnel and equipment.

So where does that leave the Department?

Today’s WatchBlog looks at the 5 key areas DOD needs to improve to accomplish its mission. Continue reading

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Managing Fisheries in a Changing Ocean

commercial-fishing-boatAs the conditions in the Earth’s oceans change due to rising ocean temperatures, among other things, the size and location of fish populations may also change. So, can federal agencies anticipate and plan for the effects of these changes on specific types of fish?

For today’s World Oceans Day, the WatchBlog explores the National Marine Fisheries Service’s efforts to successfully manage federal fisheries in light of changing ocean conditions. Continue reading

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75 Years After the Battle of Midway, a Tour of the Midway Atoll

video stillA major World War II naval battle around the Midway Atoll—a trio of small islands near Hawaii—ended in June 1942 when the United States turned back a Japanese attack and crippled its Imperial Navy.

Now, 75 years later, this atoll is home to the Battle of Midway National Memorial, which marks the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

To honor the occasion, we’re taking a tour of some historic battle spots on the atoll from our review of Midway’s history and habitat. While Midway is inaccessible to most Americans, our video and the photos below can help give you a sense of what the atoll looks like now. Continue reading

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“It was 50 years ago today…”

GAO logoOn June 1, 1967, the Beatles released their album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the United States. It revolutionized modern music and helped usher in the Summer of Love. In honor of this musical and cultural milestone, the WatchBlog shares some GAO reports you may recognize in the classic lyrics. Continue reading

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Taking Care of the Families of Fallen Servicemembers

Tomb of the Unknown SoldierEach Memorial Day, the United States remembers military servicemembers who lost their lives in service to the nation. It is also important to remember the families whom fallen servicemembers have left behind, and their tremendous sacrifice for the nation. Today’s WatchBlog discusses DOD’s programs for surviving families and how those programs could get even better. Continue reading

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Help for International Air Travelers?

Homeland SecurityMemorial Day weekend marks the start of the peak summer travel season, when the highest volumes of international travelers arrive at U.S. international airports, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

CBP and airport and airline stakeholders have taken a variety of steps in recent years to help reduce wait times and move travelers efficiently through U.S. international airports.

So, as we near the busy summer travel season, how can these travel initiatives help speed people through international arrivals? Today’s WatchBlog explores. Continue reading

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