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
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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, 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. 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 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

  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 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

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

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On National STEM Day, Combatting Sexual Harassment in STEM Research

Research in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) plays a critical role in enhancing the nation’s competitiveness. Here on the WatchBlog, we’ve explored the federal government’s role in supporting STEM education, diversifying the pipeline of STEM talent, and increasing women’s access to federal funding for STEM.

Today on National STEM Day, we discuss federal efforts to combat a threat to the integrity and fairness of STEM research: sexual harassment.

The impact of sexual harassment

In recent years, prominent STEM researchers have engaged in or been accused of sexual harassment, according to a number of media reports.

Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and other discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities, including STEM research. Sexual harassment is not only illegal and degrading—it also makes it more difficult for women to engage in this field and undermines the quality and fairness of our nation’s research.

How sexual harassment shows up in STEM research

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, female students in engineering and medical majors experience sexual harassment significantly more than female students in non-STEM fields. The most common form of sexual harassment is gender harassment, which generally involves hostility, exclusion, or other discrimination based on a person’s gender, but sexual harassment also includes sexual coercion and unwanted sexual behavior.

There are several factors that can allow sexual harassment to occur:

  • Perceived tolerance for sexual harassment in environments where men outnumber women and leadership is male dominated
  • Environments in which the power structure of an organization is hierarchical with strong dependencies on those at higher levels or in which people are geographically isolated
  • Increased focus on symbolic compliance with Title IX
  • Uninformed leadership on campus

Agency steps to address the problem

GAO’s John Neumann recently testified on our preliminary work examining federal efforts to help prevent sexual harassment by STEM research grantees.

John Neumann testifyingJohn Neumann, Managing Director of GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics Team, testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Our initial observations show that the 5 agencies that provide most of the federal STEM research grant funding have taken steps to strengthen their policies to prevent sexual harassment at universities. In addition, the National Science Foundation has implemented new requirements for universities to report sexual harassment, and officials said the number of complaints and related requests has since increased. The agencies have also taken steps to coordinate with each other to address the culture and climate for women in STEM.

However, all 5 agencies reported challenges in obtaining and sharing information, which may increase the risk of “passing the harasser” — a situation in which a researcher is found to have sexually harassed someone at one university and then gets employment or funding from another university or agency without the university or agency being aware of the researcher’s history.

We did not make any recommendations, but we are continuing our work on this topic. To learn more, read the full testimony.

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Helping Serve Those Who Have Served

Approximately 200,000 servicemembers transition from military service to civilian life each year. Part of the government’s commitment to military members is helping them achieve their education and career goals. This investment in servicemembers continues after they leave the military and includes their families, who are also affected by their loved-one’s transition to the civilian workforce.

For Veterans Day this Monday, as we honor those who have served, we revisit some of our work on federal programs that help ease the return to civilian life.

Many programs, now in one place

Multiple federal agencies provide education and employment assistance to servicemembers, veterans, and their families—both independently and together. This can make navigating the different options difficult. In fact, we found there was no inventory of federal programs that could easily give potential participants a complete picture of available benefits.

We compiled a comprehensive list and found 11 agencies offering 45 programs. A 12th agency also administered a tax exclusion for GI Bill benefits, which allows recipients to exclude these benefits from their taxable income. More than half of these programs served veterans, while others served servicemembers and their families.

Number of Federal Programs Whose Primary Purpose Is to Provide Education, Employment, or Self-Employment Assistance to Servicemembers, Veterans, or Their Families, by Type of Beneficiary Served

Translating military skills to the civilian world

Although servicemembers often learn and master skills during their service, some may have a difficult time finding employment after they leave the military. One contributing factor: it can be difficult to translate skills learned in the military—such as maintaining a ship’s navigational radar—into civilian jobs. To help with this issue, the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard have over 300 employment centers at military installations worldwide.

These centers operate the mandatory Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which provides counseling, employment assistance, and information on veterans’ benefits for separating servicemembers. Other employment and family support services are also available at the centers. The TAP curriculum, which was recently altered for the first time since 2011, now provides

  • Individualized initial counseling between the servicemember and a TAP counselor
  • Pre-separation counseling on benefits, entitlements, and resources
  • DOD-required coursework on financial planning, resiliency, and a crosswalk of military and civilian occupations
  • Briefings on VA benefits and services
  • A required one-day Department of Labor brief on preparing for employment
  • Two days of additional instruction in at least 1 of 4 topics, such as vocational skills or entrepreneurship
  • A capstone event, where commanders verify that servicemembers have achieved career readiness standards and have a viable individual transition plan

Keeping servicemembers informed

A key component of smoothing the transition from military to civilian life is making sure servicemembers are aware of their education and employment support options before they exit the service, so they have the freedom to explore and choose what works for them.

According to servicemembers and DOD staff we interviewed, information about employment and education opportunities is most useful early in the year preceding a servicemembers’ discharge date, as it takes time to craft a strong resume and search for jobs or colleges. However, in 2017, we found that fewer than half of eligible servicemembers completed the required transition workshops 90 days or more before leaving the service.

New TAP requirements established by the FY 2019 John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act now require DOD to ensure servicemembers begin TAP no later than 365 days before they separate or retire from the military. Servicemembers who are retiring are recommended to begin the transition process at least 2 years in advance.

More information on federal programs to help transitioning service members can be found here.

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Digging Deep on the 2020 Census with GAO’s New Podcast Series

Today we’re introducing a new breed of GAO podcast — Watchdog Report: Deep Dig. While our traditional podcast tends to zero in on the bottom line of one of our new reports, Deep Dig will explore broader issues we examine, and bring you stories from the people behind our reports.

Watchdog Deep Dig Podcast Logo

The first episode of Deep Dig is on the 2020 Census — one of our High Risk areas.

The U.S. Census provides vital data for the nation. It’s used to determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and distribute billions of dollars each year in federal financial assistance. But putting together such an enormous, high-stakes operation doesn’t happen overnight. The Census Bureau has been preparing for the event for years. And as part of our longstanding efforts to give near-real time feedback to the Bureau, we’ve been on the ground with census workers observing the process.

Some of our Census experts sat down to talk about how preparations are going, and some of the reasons why the census is so critically important to government operations. Press play to hear what they had to say.


GAO staff around a table talking about the Census

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Creating Explosives for Nuclear Weapons

Those yellow pebbles pictured on the left? While they might look a lot like Halloween candy, they are far from it. They’re actually formulated explosives the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration uses to create weapons.

In today’s WatchBlog, we discuss our report on how NNSA develops and manages nuclear weapons.

What’s in a nuclear weapon?

Nuclear weapons are often thought about in terms of uranium and plutonium—i.e., the key components in nuclear weapons. However, these weapons also feature over 100 components that use non-nuclear explosive materials, some of them highly specialized and difficult to produce.

NNSA—which is responsible for the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile—plans to modernize nearly all of the nuclear weapons that are currently deployed. And as these weapons are modernized, the explosive components must be replaced.

A precise recipe

Unlike candy, the explosives required by NNSA cannot be purchased by a quick trip to the store or even a quick trip to the lab. The standards for creating these materials are so specific that the process is often called a recipe.

In fact, these materials must meet more exacting standards than explosives found in conventional weapons. The temperature, mixing speed, and container size must all be carefully controlled, and at each step of the production process, NNSA conducts tests to ensure the explosives meet stringent safety and performance requirements.

Challenges to detonation development

We found that NNSA faces several challenges working with these explosive materials. In addition to challenges with reproducing or procuring the explosive materials, NNSA has had difficulty recruiting and training qualified staff, and the agency’s infrastructure is aging and deteriorating.

While these issues are common across the Department of Energy, older infrastructure poses unique challenges when working with material as dangerous as explosives. Common weather conditions such as thunder storms can shut down some operations due to the dangers associated with working with explosives in deteriorating buildings. For instance, the photo below shows expensive testing equipment that must be covered to avoid water damage from a leaky roof.

In all, we made 3 recommendations for improving the management of explosive materials, including data improvements to help address infrastructure issues.

Check out our report to learn more.

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Our Innovation Lab: Building a Sandbox for Audit Tech

As our world becomes increasingly digitized, being able to quickly make sense of patterns, correlations, and behaviors from huge amounts of data is vital. This is especially true for federal agencies and the audit community.

As Taka Ariga, GAO’s first Chief Data Scientist and Director of the Innovation Lab, rolls up his sleeves and gets to work, his focus will be on transforming the way that GAO thinks about and uses advanced analytical capabilities. With extensive hands-on experience working with audit, legal, and other organizations in the public and private sectors, he has a good idea of what lies ahead.

Photo of Taka Ariga, GAO’s first Chief Data Scientist and Director of the Innovation Lab, discussing his vision for Innovation Lab with Innovation Lab staff

Taka Ariga, GAO’s first Chief Data Scientist and Director of the Innovation Lab, discussing his vision for Innovation Lab with Innovation Lab staff. | Source: GAO.

In today’s WatchBlog, we take a closer look at the Innovation Lab and what’s in store for the future.

“Data analytics is the tradecraft of distilling hidden insights and enabling people to rapidly act on those insights,” says Mr. Ariga. “Think about looking at your bank statement with a list of transactions. Being able understand spend patterns and spend relationships quickly is tremendously empowering when it comes to managing personal finances. If we ask increasingly sophisticated questions across multiple sets of data, we can now infer how the data might behave. In the user-centric environment of the Innovation Lab, by applying data science at scale and exploring emerging technologies such as machine learning and digital ledger, we will help the audit community address grand challenges.”

What is GAO’s Innovation Lab?

We launched our Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team earlier this year to meet Congress’s need for more and deeper analysis of science and technology and their policy implications. Part of the plan for this team was to create a lab for new advanced analytics and emerging technologies that will revolutionize how auditors and other government employees work.

Data scientists in our Innovation Lab will use emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and distributed ledger technology—which allows things like Bitcoin to function—in a “sandbox” testing environment to explore and deploy cutting-edge methods.

Here’s an example of the future impact of Innovation Lab: We have previously predicted that more than a trillion dollars of improper Medicare payments—such as overpayments incorrectly made to people or for services not actually provided—will be paid over the next decade, unless better prevention techniques can be developed.

When we conduct audits of programs like Medicare, we typically identify improper payments within one data set. But what if auditors could analyze multiple large data sets simultaneously to identify deceased individuals who are continuing to receive Medicare payments? The Innovation Lab will be able to use advanced search and data mining analysis to do just that.

Saving taxpayer money with advanced methods

The techniques that emerge from the Innovation Lab have the potential to save billions of dollars for taxpayers across the full spectrum of federal programs.

Imagine, for example, being able to throw the analytical power of AI and machine learning at the billions of data points in the Department of Treasury’s general fund and getting to the point where you could identify every improper payment without the need for any statistical sampling at all.

Understanding the opportunities, challenges, and implications of emerging technologies such as AI plays an important role in informed decision-making. In July, 2017, GAO brought together representatives from industry, government, academia, and nonprofit organizations during the Forum on Artificial Intelligence to consider the potential implications of AI developments. Participants highlighted several areas that they believe warrant further research (below).

Graphic Showing Implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Policy and Research

As lessons emerge in the Innovation Lab’s work, staff will share any best practices it finds with the larger audit community.

In the meantime, progress in ramping up operations continues. The Innovation Lab is focused on hiring highly-skilled staff, making sure they have the right tools for the job, and establishing business processes that will deliver exceptional work.

“Innovation Lab will help us collectively move the needle of the federal government, creating a space where we de-risk the use of innovative solutions and people can think about tackling challenges differently, allowing them to make better-informed decisions,” says Mr. Ariga.

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