Climate Change, Global Migration, and U.S. Government Actions

thumbnail international affairsToday is World Environment Day—a day for learning more about key issues facing the environment, such as climate change, and for thinking about how people interact with the Earth.

In today’s WatchBlog, we discuss our recent report on the potential effects of climate change on global human migration and what some federal agencies are doing about these issues.

How could climate change affect migration?

Climate change may intensify disasters that affect people’s lives such as drought, crop failure, sea level rise, and extreme weather events, according to international and U.S. government sources.

The effects of climate change, in turn, may alter existing migration trends around the world, according to the International Organization for Migration. For example, following a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood, people may be forced to migrate because their homes are damaged or destroyed.

A complicated choice

Deciding whether to move away from one’s community is complicated in any situation—people must weigh many factors, such as economic opportunities, political stability, personal motives, and demographic pressures.

The effects of climate change add another layer of complexity to this decision. However, there is debate about how directly climate change influences people’s decisions to migrate or stay. For instance, it’s difficult to determine whether climate change is one of the many factors directly affecting people’s decision to migrate or whether it indirectly amplifies those factors.

Are federal agencies addressing climate change as a driver of migration?

We found that the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, and the Department of Defense have activities related to climate change. Although none of these activities specifically focused on the nexus of climate change and migration, they could indirectly address some factors that drive migration. For example, USAID’s efforts to enhance countries’ resilience to the effects of climate change could indirectly address some factors that drive migration.

We also found that the 3 agencies have discussed the link between climate change and migration in agency plans and risk assessments, but the issue hasn’t been a focus of any of these efforts.

For example, State identified migration as a risk in one of its country-level climate change risk assessments in early 2017. However, State subsequently changed its approach and no longer provides clear guidance to its staff on how to assess climate change risks. We recommended that State provide its staff with this guidance.

To learn more, check out our report.


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Trucking Shifts into the Future

Will there come a day when the big rig in the lane next to you doesn’t have a driver? Trucks that have some automated features—or that even drive themselves—are on the horizon, and they have the potential to improve efficiency and traffic safety. But what will automation mean for the country’s 1.9 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers?

Read on and listen to Cindy Brown Barnes, a director in our Education Workforce and Income Security team, to learn about the potential effects of automated vehicle technologies on the commercial trucking workforce, and how federal agencies are preparing.

spacerSelf-driving trucks coming down the pike

Automated trucks are being developed for long-haul trips—often hundreds of miles and days to weeks in length. These trucks have features that range from relatively simple driver assistance systems, to sensors and cameras that could help a truck drive itself.

Figure 1: Levels of Driving Automation Used by the Department of Transportation

Although this technology is currently in the works, stakeholders—such as technology developers—said it may be 5 to 10 years before automated trucks become available for commercial use. The timing depends on factors including technological limitations, state laws, cybersecurity, and public perception.

Figure 2: Examples of Automated Vehicle Technologies for Commercial Trucks

Rough road ahead for truck drivers?

So how will automated vehicle technologies affect the trucking workforce? Stakeholders predict 2 possible scenarios:

  • Self-driving trucks will be used on the highway portions of long-haul trips, likely resulting in fewer trucking jobs and lower wages; or
  • Self-driving trucks will still need operators to perform tasks like repairing flat tires and managing emergencies, possibly changing the skillset and wages of truckers without significantly affecting the number of trucking jobs.

Many stakeholders believe automation could bring new trucking jobs, such as specialized technicians and mechanics, but these jobs may be located in different geographic areas, and require different skills, than the jobs lost. Areas with high concentrations of trucking jobs may be particularly affected by the adoption of automated technologies.

Figure 7: Estimated Geographic Concentration of Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Driving Jobs

Several technology developers said they are focusing the initial development of automated trucking technology in the southwest United States because of its good weather and long highways. As a result, any future job losses could first occur there.

Before the rubber meets the road

Automated trucking won’t impact the workforce immediately, so federal agencies have an opportunity to prepare for its effects. The Departments of Transportation and Labor have both taken some steps to do so:

  • Transportation has gathered perspectives from members of the public to inform regulatory changes.
  • Labor has incorporated technology changes into its employment projections for truck drivers.
  • Both agencies recently coordinated stakeholder outreach as part of an analysis of the workforce impacts of automated trucking.

We made 4 recommendations to Labor and Transportation, including that the 2 agencies continue to convene key stakeholders as automated trucking technology evolves. Doing so could provide the agencies with important insights to help them anticipate and respond to potential workforce changes.

Interested in reading more about automated vehicle technology? Check out some of our other reports:

  • Automated Vehicles: Automated cars and light-duty trucks pose a range of safety and infrastructure challenges to policymakers.
  • Vehicle-to-Infrastructure Technologies: Emerging technologies that allow roadside devices to communicate with vehicles and drivers may offer a range of benefits, but also have costs.
  • Vehicle-to-Vehicle Technologies: The deployment of technologies that allow vehicles to detect imminent collisions by sharing data with each other presents a number of challenges.

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Federal Government Contracting for Fiscal Year 2018 (infographic)

With tax season over, now is a good time to look at how the government uses your tax dollars.

About 40% of the government’s discretionary spending goes to contracts for goods and services covering everything from health care to hand grenades. In fiscal year 2018, the federal government spent more than $550 billion on these contracts, an increase of more $100 billion from 2015. This increase is largely driven by spending on national defense.

Our infographic shows more details on how federal contracting dollars are spent across the federal government—including which agencies obligated the most funds, what they bought, and whether the contracts were competed.

A Snapshot: Government-Wide Contracting A 2018 update

The infographic was updated on May 29, 2019 to correct a labeling error under “Top 5 Civilian Services and Products.”

There are currently 4 areas related to contracting on our High Risk List:

  1. VA Acquisition Management
  2. Department of Energy’s Contract and Project Management for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Office of Environmental Management
  3. NASA Acquisition Management
  4. DOD Contract Management

For more detailed reports of some of the government’s largest acquisition programs, read our assessments of DOD, NASA, and DHS acquisitions.


    • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Bill Woods at woodsw@gao.gov.
    • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Spring Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

Watchdog Report LogoIt has been a busy year so far in our podcast studio! And if you’re not subscribed to the Watchdog report on iTunes or our RSS feed, you’re missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on some of the podcasts you may have missed this spring.

Preparing for Robot Coworkers and AI: Robots have existed for decades. But these days, robots may be equipped with learning capabilities that enable them to perform a wide array of tasks. So, what effect will robots, artificial intelligence, and other technologies have on the workplace? Cindy Brown Barnes, a director in our Education Workforce and Income Security team, discusses our recent report that explored this question:

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Photo Showing a Collaborative Robot Designed to Interact with Human Workers

Changes to Coins Could Save Money: Both the penny and nickel cost more to make than their face value. In our recent report, we looked at potential cost savings from making changes to currency, and found that changing the metals in coins could save money without affecting how coins look or work. Listen to Andrew Von Ah, a director in our Physical Infrastructure team, talk about this and other findings:

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Photo of Dollar Bills and Various Coins

IRS and Private Debt Collection: In FY 2017, IRS considered over $50 billion in unpaid taxes to be collectable. While IRS attempts to collect tax debts to promote tax compliance, it doesn’t have resources to pursue all debts. So, the agency began contracting with private collection agencies. Hear Jessica Lucas-Judy, a director in our Strategic Issues team, discuss the effectiveness of this new program and its potential risks to taxpayers:

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Photo of Jessica Lucas-Judy, a Director in GAO's Strategic Issues Team

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Security Risks: In the hands of terrorists, radioactive material could be combined with conventional explosives to make a dirty bomb. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for ensuring the security of radioactive material used throughout the country. Listen to David Trimble, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, discuss which additional factors we recommended NRC consider when determining security measures for radioactive material.

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Image Showing Potential Consequences of a Radiological Dispersal Device or Dirty Bomb


Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.

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GAO’s Guide to Saving the Government Billions of Dollars: Reducing Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication in Federal Programs

GAO's Duplication and Cost Savings MedallionToday we released our 9th annual report on fragmentation, overlap, and duplication in the federal government, adding 98 new actions that Congress or federal agencies can take to improve government programs. For example:

  • The Department of Energy could avoid spending billions of dollars by developing a radioactive and hazardous waste cleanup strategy.
  • The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services could save hundreds of millions of dollars by improving how it oversees Medicaid expenditures.
  • The Department of Defense could save millions of dollars annually by coordinating with state and local governments for support services, such as waste management and snow removal.
  • The Department of Homeland Security should develop a strategy and implementation plan to better manage its fragmented chemical defense programs and activities.
  • Federal agencies that coordinate research on quantum computing and synthetic biology could better manage fragmentation to improve their research efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in these areas.

Listen to Jessica Lucas-Judy, a director in our Strategic Issues team, explain more about 2019’s updates.

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How reducing fragmentation, overlap, and duplication saves taxpayer money

Since 2011, we’ve been reporting on ways the government can be more efficient and save taxpayers’ money by looking for agencies and programs that:

  • work on similar or different parts of the same goal  (fragmentation)
  • have similar goals or provide similar services (overlap)
  • work on the same activities or provide the same services (duplication)

Fully addressing new actions and those that remain open from our prior reports could lead to tens of billions of dollars in additional financial benefits. By addressing actions we’ve proposed, the federal government has saved about $260 billion!

Want to find out more? Check out our Action Tracker to explore the hundreds of other actions we’ve identified.


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Educational Opportunities and Discipline Issues in Public Schools on the 65th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

Photo Showing Mortarboard, Diploma, and BooksOn May 17, 1954, in its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that state laws establishing “separate but equal” public schools for Blacks and Whites were unconstitutional.

Sixty-five years later, race and poverty still are issues in our nation’s public schools, as our work on school composition, discipline, and access to courses that prepare students for college has highlighted.

In today’s WatchBlog, we share some findings from a few of our recent reports examining the intersection of race and poverty in public K-12 schools.

Racial and socioeconomic isolation is increasing

In our 2016 report, we found that over time, there has been a large increase in schools that are the most isolated by poverty and race. From 2000-14, the percentage of K-12 public schools that were both high poverty and comprised of mostly Black or Hispanic students grew significantly.

In these schools, 75-100% of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 75-100% of the students were Black or Hispanic.

Figure Showing Changes in the Percentage of High-Poverty Schools Comprised of Mostly Black or Hispanic Students, Selected School Years from 2000-01 to 2013-14During the same time, the number of students attending these schools also grew. For instance, the number of students attending high-poverty, mostly Black or Hispanic, schools more than doubled.

Discipline disproportionately affects certain groups of students

In our 2018 report, we found that Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined in K-12 public schools, based on data from the 2013-14 school year. This pattern persisted regardless of the level of school poverty, type of public school, and type of disciplinary action, including:

  • in-school and out-of-school suspensions;
  • referrals to law enforcement;
  • expulsions;
  • corporal punishment; and
  • school-related arrests.

Figure Showing Students Suspended from School Compared to Student Population, by Race, Sex, and Disability Status, School Year 2013-2014

Fewer course offerings; fewer educational opportunities

Students in relatively poor and small schools also had less access to high school courses that help prepare them for college, according to our analysis of data from the 2015-16 school year.

While most public high schools, regardless of poverty level, offered courses like algebra and biology, students in high-poverty schools tended to have less access to more advanced courses like calculus, physics, and those that may allow students to earn college credit, like Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Figure Showing Courses Offered in Public High Schools, by School Poverty Level

This poses a problem for students applying to colleges. For example, a majority of colleges wanted their students to have at least 3 math courses and at least 3 science courses.  Some also preferred that their students had some exposure to AP courses.

Figure Showing Admission Criteria for Public 4-year Colleges

However, if students don’t have access to these courses, they may have a disadvantage in getting into colleges. When it came to math, 17% of high-poverty schools did not offer enough courses for a student to fulfill these college recommendations. For science, the numbers were even grimmer: 41% of the high-poverty schools did not offer all the science courses a student would need to meet admission expectations.

As we approach the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, this work shows that disparities still exist. These disparities among types and groups of schools may limit the educational opportunities available to poor and minority students.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Jacqueline Nowicki at nowickij@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Marking 40 Years of FEMA

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order merging many separate, disaster-related responsibilities into an independent agency called the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In the 40 years since its creation, FEMA has undergone dramatic changes—most notably in 2003, when it became part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the events of 9/11.

In today’s WatchBlog, we explore what we have found as FEMA has evolved through the years, and what it can do to improve operations in the future.

The early years

A few years after FEMA’s creation, we reported on some problems FEMA faced in getting started. For example, in 1983 we noted that the agency didn’t have enough staff and had difficulties in defining its mission, goals, and objectives.

Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida in 1992. At the time, it was the most devastating and expensive disaster to hit the country. After that storm, we found that the federal government’s strategy for dealing with catastrophic disasters was inadequate. We noted that improving FEMA’s damage assessments, developing a disaster unit, and enacting legislation to aid in preparing for disasters would improve the nation’s response to these events.

Recent disasters and response

Since the start of this century, the country has been struck by many major disasters that have reshaped how the government prepares for, responds to, and recovers from, disasters. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and is still considered one of the worst natural disasters to strike the country.

We made numerous recommendations after Katrina to help the government confront future catastrophic events—many of which were implemented. Among our recommendations were that DHS provide guidance and direction to other federal, state, and local agencies to ensure adequate preparedness, response, and recovery roles.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the Mid-Atlantic and northeastern states and caused $65 billion in damage.

We reported afterwards that the federal government should develop a strategy to help the nation reduce future disaster risk. Our podcast from that time has more details.

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After both disasters, Congress passed major legislation to reform FEMA.

Current challenges for FEMA

Recent large-scale disasters—such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the California wildfires—have created unprecedented demand for federal disaster help. In fact, the 2017 hurricane and wildfire season included 3 of the top 5 costliest hurricanes on record at the time. As of June 2018, Congress had appropriated over $120 billion in supplemental funding for response and recovery related to these disasters.

FEMA’s workforce also swelled during this time. We reported that, in October 2017, close to 14,000 federal employees were deployed in response to the disasters.

Listen to our podcast with Chris Currie, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, for more on what we found:

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And watch our video, where Chris answers questions from the public and talks about federal disaster assistance efforts and challenges.

In 2018, more catastrophic hurricanes and wildfire disasters hit the country, requiring even greater federal disaster assistance. We have work underway now examining how FEMA responded to these disasters.

What’s needed in the future?

One of our open priority recommendations is for FEMA to develop a better way to assess whether states and local governments can respond to and recover from disasters without federal assistance. FEMA is working on this problem but does not yet have an estimated date for completing its efforts.

We also have other open recommendations to FEMA, including reviewing the number of staff it requires, defining its mission needs, and filling its skill gaps.

Further, FEMA has a role to play in one of our high-risk areas: limiting the federal government’s fiscal exposure by better managing climate change risks. For example, we noted in our 2019 High Risk List report that FEMA has not completed a national preparedness assessment to help set priorities for grant funding.

As the 2019 hurricane and wildfire season approaches, FEMA will need to be ready. We will continue to review the agency’s efforts just as we have done for many decades.


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An Ongoing Risk: Cybersecurity Attacks at Federal Agencies

Image of Computer CodeSimilar to how new flu shots come out each year to combat new strains of the virus, agencies must routinely adapt their cybersecurity efforts to address evolving threats.

In today’s WatchBlog, we look at the federal government’s approach to and strategy for securing its systems.

Read on and listen to our podcast with Greg Wilshusen, a director in our Information Technology and Cybersecurity team, to learn about what has been done and what needs to be improved.

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Many attacks still occur

While federal agencies have gotten better at preventing and detecting intrusions into their systems, they are still vulnerable to attacks such as unauthorized computer invasions. In FY 2017, for instance, federal agencies reported more than 35,000 cybersecurity incidents.

Figure Showing Federal Information Security Incidents by Threat Vector Category, Fiscal Year 2017

Why is federal cybersecurity important?

When you step back to think about the vast amount of sensitive information the government maintains, it becomes apparent why cyberattacks pose a serious threat to our economic, national, and personal privacy and security. For example:

Are federal agencies working to improve security?

In some respects, agencies are doing a better job at protecting against cyberattacks than before the 2015 Office of Personnel Management data breach.

However, most agencies still don’t have an effective approach to securing their systems. For example, inspectors general at 17 of the agencies we reviewed in our recent report said that their information security programs weren’t effective enough.

What more can be done?

We’ve made more than 3,000 recommendations to agencies since 2010 related to cybersecurity shortcomings. Although many of these recommendations have been addressed, approximately 600 had not been implemented as of March 2019.

We recently recommended that DHS and the Office of Management and Budget help agencies improve their intrusion detection and prevention capabilities by, among other things, identifying what obstacles and impediments affect their ability to detect and prevent intrusions.

We also have plans to further assess the adequacy and effectiveness of federal agencies’ information security programs.

To learn more, read our full report.


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The Future of the Federal Workforce

Logo for Public Service Recognition WeekFor Public Service Recognition Week, we’re celebrating the valuable contributions federal employees—including our GAO colleagues—provide to our country every day.

This week is also a good time to think about how the government can manage its workforce in the future. Read on and listen to our podcast with Robert Goldenkoff, a director in our Strategic Issues team, to learn about our recent work in this area.

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Keeping up with changes in the federal workforce

Federal employment policies were designed generations ago for a workforce and type of work that largely no longer exists. As a result, the government may struggle to compete for talented workers with the skills needed to address the nation’s social, economic, and security challenges. That’s one reason why federal human capital management has been on GAO’s High Risk List since 2001.

And this is not an isolated issue. In fact, talent management plays a role in 16 of our 35 high-risk areas. For example, difficulties recruiting and retaining skilled workers affects the government’s cybersecurity efforts and the quality of health care for our nation’s veterans.

In a recent report, we identified key trends affecting federal work and talent management strategies for attracting and keeping skilled workers

Trends affecting federal work

Technology, demographics, and attitudes toward work are evolving. These and other trends are affecting how federal work is done and, consequently, the skills and competencies that workers need to accomplish agency missions.

Figure Showing Key Trends Affecting Federal Work

Strategies for attracting and keeping talent

Collectively, the talent management strategies we identified provide a helpful reminder of steps agencies can take to attract the best employees to help fulfill agency missions. In other words, preparing for the future workforce isn’t about revolutionary approaches; instead, it’s about focused attention to leadership, culture, and sound management practices. For instance, agencies can attract and keep talented workers by:

  • Offering work/life balance such as flexible scheduling,
  • Offering development opportunities,
  • Linking employees’ daily activities to the agency’s mission, and
  • Recruiting graduating students earlier in the school year.

Public Service from the Investigative Arm of Congress

Here at GAO about 3,000 public servants work at headquarters and 11 field offices spread across the country. We’re proud that our work produced $75.1 billion in measurable financial benefits to the nation in fiscal year 2018. That amounts to a return of about $124 for every dollar invested in GAO. We also identified 1,294 other benefits that led to program and operational improvements across the government.

Want to know more? Check out our key issues pages on human capital, including those on Best Practices.


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Building Capacity in Science & Technology

Here’s some news that’s generating excitement among the nerds here at GAO. (Which, if we’re being honest, is most of us.) Our new science and technology team officially has a plan to rapidly expand the rigorous, nonpartisan analysis it provides to Congress.

GAO has been building its capacity in science and technology since 2002. With this latest step, we are on track to deliver services on a scale that matches the enormous importance of these issues.

You can think of the plan in three parts: people, partnerships, and products.

People

It starts with the people we need to tackle more and more complex analysis. Our first step has been to transfer and hire several staff into the new unit, formally known as Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics, or STAA.

We plan to bring the team’s roster to 70 people later this year and expand to as many as 140 in the next few years. The existing staff includes PhDs in physics, chemistry, and engineering, as well as a strong contingent of veteran analysts, auditors, specialists, and communicators.

Our next round of hiring will emphasize biological sciences, computer engineering, aerospace engineering, and data science and engineering, among other fields. We are also exploring hiring post-doctoral researchers and other limited-term staff to provide expertise tailored to each project.

Partnerships

A second element of the plan is partnerships, which we need in order to give Congress access to world-leading researchers in a variety of fields. We will use partnerships to convene panels of experts, collaborate on research, and conduct peer reviews and other expert reviews.

One of our key partners is the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The launch of STAA adds new dimensions to this long-standing relationship. For example, we recently began work on a set of 3 technology assessments on artificial intelligence in health care, which we plan to conduct jointly with panels of researchers to be assembled by the National Academy of Medicine.

We are making additional connections, for example by establishing 2 external boards to further enhance our science and technology work. The first is an advisory board of thought leaders, who will help give us the vision to anticipate and respond to critical technologies as they emerge, or even before. Its members will include experts from industry, academia, and nonprofits, as well as former senior government officials. The second will be made up of experts who will focus on our technology assessments, helping us ensure they are rigorous, relevant, and fully peer reviewed.

Products

A third element of the STAA plan is product improvements to align with the fast pace of both congressional work and technological change. We will place greater emphasis on technical assistance and other ways to deliver rigorous analysis on tight deadlines.

For example, we are applying a new method for the evaluation of policy options in our technology assessments. As a nonpartisan, fact-based agency, we do not propose policies, but we will now give a balanced analysis of the pros, cons, and trade-offs of options proposed by others.

STAA will also write audit reports, the products for which GAO is best known and which save taxpayers billions of dollars each year. To further strengthen this core line of work, STAA is creating an innovation lab to help GAO make greater use of tools such as advanced analytics and data science. STAA will also update and enhance GAO’s best-practice guides for keeping large federal acquisitions on schedule and on budget.

Looking Forward

In a blog post in January, we described the “what” of the STAA team. With our new plan, submitted to Congress in March and made public April 10, we now have the “how.”

This plan puts GAO’s newest team on a path to deliver faster, more insightful analysis for Congress and the American people.


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