National Save for Retirement Week

photo of cake for a retirement partyThe U.S. population is changing and so is retirement. Boomers are aging, traditional pensions are shifting to voluntary contribution plans, and Social Security faces important financial challenges. Planning—and saving—for retirement is more important than ever.

For National Save for Retirement Week, we’re blogging about the state of Americans’ retirement savings, sharing our interactive tool for how your 401(k) plan may perform, and answering some key questions about the future of Social Security.

Are you ready to retire?

Just over half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings—such as an IRA or 401(k) plan. And the half that does may have a hard time making their money last through retirement.

In 2015, a team led by Charles Jeszeck, a director in our Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, reviewed the financial resources of retirees and workers approaching retirement. Listen to what they found:


We’ll show you how long your money may last

Saving for retirement is critical, and many American workers use an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan to do so. But the extent to which plans offer options on how to spend your savings in retirement—such as whether or not they offer a lifetime annuity—can affect how long your savings will last through retirement.

Our interactive tool shows you the four options retirees use for their monthly 401(k) income—and how those choices can affect how long the money will last.

What about Social Security?

Social Security is a bedrock of retirement security—annually providing billions of dollars to older Americans and their families, as well as providing benefits to people with disabilities. But Social Security’s costs now exceed its revenues, and changes are needed to help ensure that its programs can continue to provide all the benefits promised to current workers, retirees, and their families.

In this video, we explain how Social Security works—and options to fix it.

Our infographic also provides high-level findings from our in-depth analysis of Social Security’s future.

Infographic: Social Security's Future

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The Great Shake Out: What You Need to Know About Earthquake Preparedness

Homeland SecurityEarthquake preparedness helps protect lives and property from the devastation that earthquakes can cause. It’s particularly important for earthquakes that are difficult to predict or arrive with little warning.

The Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills are happening tomorrow—are you prepared? To help, the WatchBlog explores ShakeAlert, the earthquake early warning system, and other efforts to prep for quakes.

Not just a west side story

While severe earthquakes have occurred frequently in California, the risk of earthquakes is present in many parts of the United States. Over 240 million Americans live in areas vulnerable to at least a moderate earthquake hazard—including almost 405,000 federal employees who work in federal buildings in areas where strong to extreme shaking can occur.

Figure: Select Cities on 2014 Earthquake Shaking Map(Excerpted from GAO-16-680)

Can technology help save the day?

Having even just a few seconds of warning before an earthquake hits can help protect lives. ShakeAlert can identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculate the likely intensity of ground shaking, and deliver warnings to people and infrastructure in harm’s way. This early warning system can detect earthquakes so quickly that an alert can reach some areas before strong shaking occurs.

Figure 3: Earthquake Early Warning: How It Works(Excerpted from GAO-16-680)

The federal government, along with western state governments, academic institutions, and various seismic networks, are working together to expand this early warning system—which is currently in beta testing in the western United States. Listen to Chris Currie, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, talk about the ShakeAlert system:


Is the government prepared?  

While early warning systems play an important role in earthquake preparedness, assessing and mitigating seismic risks prior to earthquakes is also crucial.

We have reported that the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration—who are responsible for about 72 percent of the building space owned or leased by the federal government—could do more to reduce the risk of earthquake damage to federal buildings. For example, a federal initiative in the 1990s identified approximately 2,900 federal buildings at exceptionally high-risk for damage from earthquakes. The initiative also estimated that $22.9 billion was needed to retrofit these high-risk and other seismically at-risk federal buildings—a cost some officials believed was too expensive to pursue.

However, local governments—particularly those in the high-risk cities of Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Memphis—are working to protect people and property from earthquakes by conducting earthquake drills, requiring safer buildings, and retrofitting existing structures.

To learn more about when ShakeAlert may be ready to be fully implemented, how much earthquakes have cost U.S. cities, and to see examples of how to enhance new and existing buildings to better withstand quakes, check out our full report.

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Measuring Federal Employee Performance

IMG_0154For many federal employees, October means another cycle of performance appraisals and ratings. Federal agencies need employees who do good work, so today’s WatchBlog looks at what it takes to rate federal employees, how they measure up, and what to do with poor performers.

How can agencies effectively manage performance?

An effective performance management system is more than just checking boxes on a form once or twice a year. It is a whole set of activities that help managers plan, monitor, develop, rate, and reward employee performance.

We outlined a set of key practices for effective performance management that, collectively, create a clear line of sight for an employee to see how his or her performance directly affects the organization’s success. Here are some examples of those practices:

  • aligning individual performance expectations with organizational goals
  • making meaningful distinctions between acceptable and outstanding performance
  • appropriately rewarding employees who perform at the highest level
  • addressing poor performance
  • providing ongoing and relevant feedback to employees

Where everyone is above average? 

Most federal employees receive ratings in the top performance categories. We found that more than 85% of federal executives received top ratings for fiscal years 2010 through 2013—with some federal departments giving even more of their executives top ratings.

As a result, we recommended refining the government executives’ performance appraisal, or performance rating, system. In that recommendation, we suggested that the Office of Personnel Management—which oversees all policy for federal human resource departments—to not certify any appraisal system where “outstanding” is the most common rating.

It’s not just executives who received high performance ratings. We found that less than 1% of the non-executive federal workforce were rated “minimally successful” or “unacceptable.” In fact, nearly all non-executive federal employees were rated as “fully successful” or higher, and over 60% were rated in the top two categories: “exceeds fully successful” and “outstanding.”

Figure 1: Permanent, Non-Senior Executive Service Employee Performance Rating Outcomes (All Rating Systems, Calendar Year 2013)(Excerpted from GAO-16-520R)

Poor performers

It sounds like federal employees are performing pretty well—but even a small number of poor performers can drag down morale and make an agency less efficient. This happens in part because other, more successful employees have to shoulder the burden of a poor performer.

Federal agencies have 3 avenues to address employees’ poor performance, all of which require strong leadership:

  1. Manage day-to-day performance by providing regular performance feedback to employees. This can be a better alternative than dismissing an employee, but supervisors aren’t always skilled at addressing employee performance issues.
  2. Use probationary periods to assess new employees. Probationary periods can give supervisors time to determine whether to keep an employee, but supervisors often don’t use this time to make and act on decisions based upon an employee’s performance.
  3. Dismiss poor performers following the agency policies and processes. Those processes are more time- and resource-intensive for agencies than probationary dismissals.

We made several recommendations to help agencies deal with poor performers.

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Thinking about Joining Medicare Advantage?

photo of an aging person's handsIf you have Medicare, this time of year always brings an opportunity to switch health plans during the annual open enrollment period, which starts this weekend and runs through December 7. About 30% of Medicare participants choose Medicare Advantage plans—the private plan  alternative to traditional or “original” Medicare.

Medicare Advantage plans offer the same benefits as those covered under traditional Medicare, but they also differ in significant ways. So, today’s WatchBlog explores some issues to consider when choosing a Medicare plan. Continue reading

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Veterans’ Health Care Physician Credentials (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconAre our veterans always being treated by qualified physicians?

Millions of vets rely on the Veterans Health Administration to provide them with health care services, and VHA contracts out some of these services. How much does VHA know about these doctors’ credentials and qualifications?

A team led by Elizabeth Curda, a director in our Health Care team, recently set out to explore this question. Here’s what they found.


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Federal Disaster Assistance (infographic)

gao-16-797_disaster-assistance-infographic_thumbnail_v2Hurricane Matthew is one of the strongest storms to impact U.S. shores in decades.

The federal government has a role in helping the nation respond to and recover from hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and other major disasters or emergencies.

Our infographic shows you which disasters receive federal assistance and the different types of federal help. Continue reading

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Federal Cybersecurity Challenges

information technologyThese days, when you turn on the news you almost always see another hack, leak, or breach putting sensitive information at risk. But we’ve been focusing on keeping federal agency information systems secure for a long time. For October’s Cybersecurity Awareness Month, the WatchBlog takes a look at federal cybersecurity challenges. Continue reading

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Earthquake Preparedness (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconAs the 2011 Virginia earthquake demonstrated, earthquakes aren’t just a west coast concern. The quake shook the entire D.C.-metro region, surprising a population unaccustomed to seismic activity—including us.

Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes can be hard to prepare for because they’re so unexpected—for now. The federal government and its partners are currently working on the “Shake Alert” earthquake early warning system, which could potentially warn of an oncoming quake seconds or minutes before it hits.

Listen to Chris Currie, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, discuss this and other federal efforts to assess risks, and prepare for earthquakes.


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Prescription Drug Costs

_OPA6811The high costs of new drugs, as well as the dramatic price increases of some older and traditionally less expensive generic drugs, have thrust drug prices into the headlines.

But what’s the full story? Today, we’re shedding some light on the cost of new drugs coming to market, generic drug prices, and why drug coupons complicate the picture. Continue reading

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Funding What Works (infographic)

thumbnail image of infographicA new policy tool called “tiered evidence grantmaking” allows federal agencies to award smaller amounts of grant funding to test promising ideas, and larger amounts to replicate practices with a proven record of success.

How exactly does that work? Scroll through our infographic to see. Continue reading

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