Do the Oscars Make You Think of Federal Policy? Yeah, Us Too.

GAO logoWe think about our reports all the time—even when we watch movies. As a tribute to our single-mindedness, today’s WatchBlog is all about how our work relates to this year’s Oscar-nominated films.

So, get some popcorn, put your feet up, and enjoy some edutainment, GAO style.

Is anyone out there?

In Arrival, aliens bearing cryptic messages land on Earth and the world goes mad. What other reaction could there be to giant, 7-legged, octopus-like creatures (heptapods!) who are clearly smarter than us? A best picture nomination, perhaps?

But if there really is someone else out there, it’d be nice to have some advance warning (we could at least put the kettle on). NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope—one of its most complex and expensive projects—aims to do just that by revolutionizing our understanding of the universe.

Luckily, our recent review of the telescope found that it is still on track to launch in October 2018.

James Webb Space Telescope's Sunshield Template Layers(Excerpted from GAO-17-71)

What if it turns out, though, that we have company closer to home? Europa, another NASA project, will look at whether Jupiter’s moon of the same name could support life by investigating the large ocean under its surface. It’s not planned to launch until 2022—but you can check out our annual assessment of major projects in NASA’s portfolio now to find out how the agency is managing it.

Eurpoa(Excerpted from GAO-16-309SP)

No more Hidden Figures

In 1962, three “human computers” helped launch John Glenn into orbit. Hidden Figures (nominated for best picture) depicts the lives of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson—female, African-American mathematicians who worked on calculations at NASA that helped turn around the space race.

And, while we’d like to think that they broke down gender barriers forevermore, there are still fewer women than men in STEM disciplines. Yet we found that only 3 of the 6 largest federal science agencies (NIH, NSF, and USDA) are tracking how successful women are at applying for federal STEM research funding (though NASA, DOD, and DOE are taking steps to remedy that). We also outlined some ideas on how federal agencies could help increase women’s participation in STEM fields.

Supporting roles: Drug-free coalitions

Another best-picture contender, Moonlight, also received a nod for best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali. Ali plays a kind-hearted surrogate father to a young man who struggles to survive the poverty and drugs that pervade his neighborhood.

In a similar supporting role, the Drug-Free Communities Support Program provides grants for establishing community-based, youth-focused, drug abuse prevention efforts. We have reported that the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services use leading collaboration practices to administer this program—though they could strengthen their grant monitoring efforts.

Figure 4: A Multilingual Sign that a Drug-Free Communities Support Program Grantee Developed for Vendors to Display that Reinforces the Legal Purchase Age for Alcohol (Excerpted from GAO-17-120)

Life at sea

Finally, the song “How Far I’ll Go” from the animated movie Moana also received an Oscar nod this year for best original song. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda—whose Oscar win on Sunday would complete his set of existing Emmy, Grammy, and Tony awards—the song follows a young woman as she sails beyond the safety of her small Polynesian island to seek help when fish become scarce.

And, while her island’s problems might be explained by trouble among demigods, changes in our oceans could also be affecting marine species and ecosystems. For example, we have reported that rising carbon dioxide levels can cause ocean acidification—which hurts coastal fishing and tourism industries.

Figure 3: Pacific Oyster Larvae Raised under More Favorable Ocean Conditions (Upper) and under Acidified Conditions (Lower)(Excerpted from GAO-14-736)

So enjoy the awards, and feel free to crack open a few GAO reports for reading material during the slow parts!

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Security of Federal Facilities Leased from Foreign Owners (Podcast)

GAO Podcast IconThe federal government leases space for many high-security federal agencies—such as the FBI and the DEA—which may conduct classified operations and handle sensitive data. If the spaces are in buildings owned by foreign entities, how does the government address potential threats to sensitive information and the employees who work there?

A team led by Keith Cunningham, an assistant director with our Physical Infrastructure team, recently examined government leasing in foreign-owned buildings. Listen to what they found:


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Fragmented Data on Sexual Violence

 Definition of FragmentationSexual violence has been in the headlines during the past year, including crimes involving college students, incarcerated people, and the military. Data collected by the federal government on sexual violence can help prioritize resources and design programs to prevent and address these crimes.

However, we recently looked at federal data on sexual violence and found that it is confusing and fragmented—which may obscure the scope of the problem. Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Different methods, different results

Four federal agencies—the Departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Justice (DOJ)—manage 10 separate efforts to collect data on sexual violence, and they use different methods to measure and calculate this data.

For example, some efforts focus on collecting data from a specific population (e.g., incarcerated people), while others focus on the general population. These efforts also use 23 different terms to describe sexual violence, and they differ in how they categorize particular acts of sexual violence. For example, the same act of sexual violence could be categorized by one data collection effort as “rape,” by another as “assault-sexual,” and by still another as “nonconsensual sexual acts.”

Given this, it is not surprising that there are varying estimates of sexual violence in the United States. For example, in 2011 (the most recent year of available data), one agency estimated that 244,190 rape or sexual assaults occurred—but another agency estimated that there were 1,929,000 victims of rape or attempted rape.

Additionally, some data collection efforts are inconsistent in how they define and measure sexual violence. They also do not publicize what is included in their measurements, so there is no way to know if their written definitions are different from what is included in their reported data.

These variations and inconsistencies in federal sexual violence data can lead to significant confusion for the public, and may make it more difficult to appropriately address this issue.

How to get everyone on the same page

We recommended that Education, HHS, and DOJ publish information on what is included in their measurements of sexual violence. Additionally, the Office of Management and Budget has previously convened interagency working groups to help improve federal statistics and encourage greater consistency—and we recommended that it convene a similar working group on sexual violence data.

To learn more, check out our full report.

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2017 High Risk List – U.S. Government’s Environmental Liability (video)

GAO_Video_icon-largeThis year, we added the federal government’s environmental liability to our High Risk List—our biennial report highlighting areas particularly susceptible to fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, or needing a fundamental transformation.

When federal government activities contaminate the environment, the government’s on the hook for the cleaning bill. In 2016, this bill was estimated to be $447 billion, and the actual costs may be more.

Watch David Trimble, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, explain why we added the government’s environmental liability to our latest High Risk List.

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2017 High Risk List – Management of Programs that Serve Indian Tribes and Their Members (video)

GAO_Video_icon-largeThis year, we added management of programs that serve Indian tribes and their members to our High Risk List—our biennial report highlighting areas particularly susceptible to fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, or needing a fundamental transformation.

The United States has a unique responsibility to protect and support Indian tribes and their members. But for a decade, multiple oversight organizations—including GAO—have raised concerns that the federal government is ineffectively managing programs intended to serve them.

Watch Melissa Emrey-Arras, a director in our Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, explain why we added management of such programs that serve tribes and their members to our latest High Risk List.

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2017 High Risk List – 2020 Decennial Census (video)

GAO_Video_icon-largeThis year, we added the 2020 Decennial Census to our High Risk List—our biennial report highlighting areas particularly susceptible to fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, or needing a fundamental transformation.

In 2020 the government will once again conduct a census of the nation’s population, gathering critical demographic information to be used to, among other things, define legislative districts and allocate billions in financial assistance. The 2010 Census cost over $12 billion, and innovations planned for 2020—while aimed at saving money—may introduce new risks.

Watch Robert Goldenkoff, a director in our Strategic Issues team, explain why we added the 2020 Decennial Census to our latest High Risk List.

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GAO’s 2017 High Risk List Update

High Risk MedallionToday we released our updated High Risk List, which includes three new areas:

We also removed an area related to sharing and managing of information related to terrorism, after agencies made significant progress in addressing this area. Continue reading

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Mining for Gold and Other Minerals on Federal Lands

A Hardrock Gold Mine on BLM-Managed Land in NevadaIt’s Valentine’s Day and while some people may shop for flowers and chocolate, others may be seeking a longer-lasting gift like gold jewelry. But it’s not just Valentine’s Day that can lead to a gold rush. Mine operators can submit plans for the right to dig for gold and other minerals on federal lands throughout the year. Today’s WatchBlog looks at these mining plans and the agencies that review and approve them.

Be mine
Continue reading

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A Tax Reform State of Mind

photo of a tax formThe tax code is complex and can create burdens for people and companies. And change does not come often. The last time the tax code was overhauled was in 1986.

So what (if anything) should be done to reform it? Today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at some of the key issues related to tax reform. Continue reading

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Overseas Contingency Operations (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconSince 2001, Congress has provided more than $1.6 trillion to fund the Department of Defense’s overseas contingency operations—including military operations, peacekeeping support, and major humanitarian assistance. Although these funds were initially meant to cover DOD’s incremental war-related costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, recent requests have also included activities elsewhere.

We sat down with John Pendleton, a director in our Defense Capabilities and Management team, to discuss his team’s recent review of how these funds are being used. Listen to what they found:


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