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entitled 'Federal Disability Programs: Coordination Could Facilitate 
Better Data Collection to Assess the Status of People with 
Disabilities' which was released on June 4, 2008.

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Testimony: 

Before the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National 
Archives, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, House of 
Representatives: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 
GAO: 

For Release on Delivery:
Expected at 2:00 p.m. EDT: 
Wednesday, June 4, 2008: 

Federal Disability Programs: 

Coordination Could Facilitate Better Data Collection to Assess the 
Status of People with Disabilities: 

Statement of Daniel Bertoni, Director: Education, Workforce, and Income 
Security: 

GAO-08-872T: 

GAO Highlights: 

Highlights of GAO-08-872T, a testimony before the House Subcommittee on 
Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, Committee on 
Oversight and Government Reform. 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

Multiple federal programs provide services and support to the 
approximately 50 million individuals with disabilities in America. 
While some health and economic data on people with disabilities are 
currently available, these data have limited use in providing a 
comprehensive assessment of how these individuals are faring. 
Additionally, the lack of more useful data limits the federal 
governmentís ability to determine how well federal programs are serving 
individuals with disabilities. 

GAO is providing information on (1) the limitations of data currently 
available to assess the status of individuals with disabilities and (2) 
how better coordination could help facilitate the collection of such 
data to inform policy decisions. 

This statement is based on prior GAO reports, including the May 2008 
report on modernizing federal disability programs (GAO-08-635), the 
2007 Comptroller Generalís forum on disability (GAO-07-934SP), and 
multiple reports on national indicators (e.g. GAO-05-1); and studies by 
other organizations, including the National Council on Disability. 

What GAO Found: 

Disability policy and programs in the United States have been developed 
on an individual basis over many years, with success being measured by 
individual program outcomes rather than with a unified set of national 
goals and indicators to assess how people with disabilities are faring. 
In 2005, GAO identified over 20 federal agencies and almost 200 federal 
programs serving individuals with disabilities that provided a wide 
range of assistance, such as employment-related services, medical care, 
and monetary support. These programs often have different missions, 
goals, funding streams, eligibility criteria, and policies that 
sometimes work at cross-purposes with other federal programs. In 
addition, these programs collect data to measure specific programmatic 
goals but not to provide a set of metrics to assess how federal 
programs are improving the lives of individuals with disabilities. 
Although other data on individuals with disabilities are collected on a 
national level, these data do not share consistent definitions of 
disability. As a result, these data cannot be easily compiled to create 
a comprehensive picture of the status of individuals with disabilities, 
which could better inform federal disability policy and help ensure 
that beneficiaries are given timely and appropriate supports. GAO and 
others have acknowledged the need for creating a common set of outcomes 
for disability programs and the appropriate measures for assessing 
progress toward shared goals. 

To facilitate an effort of reaching consensus on desired outcomes for 
people with disabilities, coordination among the key players in the 
disability community is required. In May 2008, to better serve people 
with disabilities, GAO suggested that Congress consider authorizing a 
coordinating entity consisting of leadership from appropriate agencies 
that serve this population to develop a cost-effective strategy to 
integrate services and supports for individuals with disabilities. 
Consistent with its proposed charter, such an entity should play a 
critical role in developing agreed-upon, desired outcomes for 
disability policies and programs and in determining what metrics and 
data will be used to assess progress toward meeting those outcomes. 

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click on 
[hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-872T]. For more 
information, contact Daniel Bertoni at (202) 512-7215 or 
bertonid@gao.gov. 

[End of section] 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: 

I am pleased to be here today to discuss the importance of 
comprehensive and reliable data to evaluate policy and assess the 
status of people living with disabilities. About 50 million individuals 
in the United States are reported to have a disability. Although some 
health and economic data are currently available, these data have 
limited use in providing insight into the status of people with 
disabilities. The lack of more useful data also limits the federal 
government's ability to determine how well individuals with 
disabilities are faring and what role federal programs play. My remarks 
today focus on (1) the limitations of data currently available to 
assess the status of individuals with disabilities and (2) how better 
coordination could help facilitate the collection of such data to 
inform policy decisions. 

My statement is based on our May 2008 report on modernizing federal 
disability programs, our 2007 Comptroller General forum on disability, 
and other prior GAO reports. (See related GAO products at the end of 
this statement.) We also reviewed studies conducted by other 
organizations, including the National Council on Disability. We 
conducted our work in accordance with generally accepted government 
auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform 
the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a 
reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit 
objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable 
basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. 

In summary, disability policy and programs in the United States have 
been developed on an individual basis over many years, with success 
being measured by individual program outcomes rather than with a 
unified set of national goals and indicators to assess how people with 
disabilities are faring. In addition, these programs collect data to 
measure specific programmatic goals but not to provide a set of metrics 
to assess how federal programs are improving the lives of individuals 
with disabilities. GAO and others have acknowledged the need for 
creating a common set of outcomes for disability programs and the 
appropriate measures for assessing progress toward shared goals. To 
facilitate this effort, coordination among the key players in the 
disability community is required. In May 2008, to better serve people 
with disabilities, we suggested that Congress consider authorizing a 
coordinating entity consisting of leadership from appropriate agencies 
that serve this population to develop a cost-effective strategy to 
integrate services and supports for individuals with disabilities. 
Consistent with its proposed charter, such an entity should play a 
critical role in developing agreed-upon, desired outcomes for 
disability policies and programs and in determining what metrics and 
data will be used to assess progress toward meeting those outcomes. 

Background: 

Multiple federal programs provide services and support to individuals 
with disabilities. To hold federal agencies accountable for their 
programs, certain data are collected and used to assess program 
performance. The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) 
mandates that federal agencies develop performance information 
describing the relative effectiveness and efficiency of federal 
programs and requires federal agencies to publish strategic and annual 
performance plans describing specific program activities. While these 
performance data are critical for assessing program effectiveness, it 
is unique to each program's mission and has a limited focus. 

Data that are more comprehensive can help generate a broader 
perspective on the status or condition of various issues. Indicators, 
which can produce more comprehensive data, are used as quantitative 
measures to describe an economic, environmental, social, or cultural 
condition over time. The unemployment rate, infant mortality rates, and 
air quality indexes are a few examples of national indicators. There 
are several types of indicators; some involve specific or related sets 
of issues, such as health, education, public safety, employment, or 
transportation, while comprehensive indicator systems pull together 
only the most essential indicators on a range of economic, 
environmental, social, and cultural issues. These data can help inform 
policy areas by clarifying problems and opportunities, identifying gaps 
in what we know, setting priorities, testing effective solutions, and 
tracking progress toward achieving goals. The National Council on 
Disability and other disability experts have advocated for developing 
better indicators to assess the status of individuals with 
disabilities. 

Current Data Limit the Assessment of the Overall Status of People with 
Disabilities: 

Disability policy and programs in the United States have been developed 
on an individual basis over many years, with success measured by 
individual program outcomes rather than by a unified set of national 
goals and indicators that assess how people with disabilities are 
faring. In 2005, we identified over 20 federal agencies and almost 200 
federal programs serving individuals with disabilities that provided a 
wide range of assistance, such as employment-related services, medical 
care, and monetary support. These programs often have different 
missions, goals, funding streams, eligibility criteria, and policies 
that sometimes work at cross-purposes with other federal programs. In 
addition, these programs primarily collect data to assess whether they 
are meeting specific goals rather than collect data to make a more 
comprehensive assessment of how the population they are serving is 
faring. For example, the Social Security Administration's (SSA) 
performance measure of the average time to process a disability claim 
provides information on how SSA is meeting its program goals with 
respect to service delivery, but the measure does not provide direct 
information on the well-being of the individuals applying for benefits. 

While other data on individuals with disabilities are collected on a 
national level, these data do not share consistent definitions of 
disability. As a result of this variation, these data cannot be easily 
compiled to create a comprehensive picture of the status of individuals 
with disabilities, which could better inform federal disability policy 
and help ensure that beneficiaries are given timely and appropriate 
support. Some efforts are being made to improve the quality and 
usefulness of national data. For example, according to a Department of 
Labor official, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' national Current 
Population Survey (CPS) will incorporate new disability questions into 
its household survey. The CPS questions will be based on existing 
questions used in the American Community Survey and will use the same 
definition of disability. These questions could advance federal efforts 
in assessing the status of people with disabilities. Also, to better 
define disability terms and concepts, experts have suggested applying a 
broader approach by creating a conceptual framework within which all 
disability programs would operate and use standardized disability 
language. Experts who participated in our 2007 Comptroller General 
Forum on Modernizing Disability Policy generally agree that a 
standardized language that can be used by related programs would 
facilitate consistent data collection, as well as any efforts to assess 
the status of individuals with disabilities. 

We and others have acknowledged that a common set of outcomes to 
measure the federal government's success toward improving the lives of 
individuals with disabilities is needed. This includes the need to move 
beyond narrowly focused programmatic measures that capture specific 
data, like the average time an agency takes to process a disability 
claim. Experts have suggested using multiple indicators, including 
quality of life and economic indicators, to develop a more 
comprehensive picture of how individuals with disabilities are faring. 
Regardless of the indicators selected, data-reporting requirements 
should be established to track outcomes to obtain the data needed to 
inform disability policy. 

The National Council on Disability's (NCD) recent report Keeping Track: 
National Disability Status and Program Performance Indicators is 
consistent with our view that given the complex challenges facing our 
nation--including serving those with disabilities--indicator systems 
are useful for measuring progress toward national outcomes, assessing 
conditions and trends, and helping to disentangle complex program and 
policy issues.[Footnote 1] Such indicators could also help identify 
gaps in what we know and help Congress set priorities and track 
progress toward achieving results. In developing and implementing an 
indicator system, we have reported that it would be helpful to 
establish a clear purpose, define target audiences and their needs, and 
ensure independence and accountability. Finally, we have also called 
for a strategic plan for all of government, supported by a portfolio of 
national and outcome-based indicators for key programs. The NCD report 
and other data sources could help develop such a plan in the area of 
disability policy regarding metrics needed to assess the well-being of 
individuals with disabilities. 

Coordinated Strategy Needed to Determine Desired Outcomes and Assess 
the Status of People with Disabilities: 

To determine the status of people with disabilities and to define 
agreed-upon outcomes, a coordinated effort is needed. In May 2008, we 
reported that a comprehensive federal strategy for coordinating federal 
disability programs was lacking. We suggested that Congress consider 
authorizing a coordinating entity consisting of leadership from 
agencies that serve people with disabilities. This entity could be 
responsible for leading the effort on reaching consensus on desired 
outcomes for federal disability policies and programs. This entity 
could also determine what measures are necessary to assess progress 
made toward meeting a unified set of goals for people with 
disabilities. A coordinated entity could also work to bridge the gap 
between needed and available information and prioritize further data 
collection. 

As Congress considers authorizing such an entity, it should pay 
particular attention to the membership and goals of this coordinating 
body. In 1992, Congress authorized the Interagency Disability 
Coordinating Council (IDCC) to coordinate federal activities to promote 
independence and productivity of individuals with disabilities. 
However, to our knowledge, the IDCC has never met or reported to 
Congress, as required by law. In a prior report, we have identified 
criteria for successful coordination, including defining and 
articulating common outcomes and establishing mutually reinforcing 
joint strategies among federal agencies to achieve identified goals 
that could be instructive for this purpose.[Footnote 2] Additionally, 
the coordinated entity could work with the Interagency Commission for 
Disability Research to identify what data are available and what data 
should be collected to assess how individuals with disabilities are 
being served and how they are faring overall. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be happy to answer 
any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have at this 
time. 

GAO contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

For further information regarding this testimony, please contact Daniel 
Bertoni, Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security at (202) 
512-7215, or bertonid@gao.gov. Shelia Drake (Assistant Director), 
Susannah Compton, Jean Cook, and Anjali Tekchandani also contributed to 
this statement. 

[End of section] 

Related GAO Products: 

Federal Disability Programs: More Strategic Coordination Could Help 
Overcome Challenges to Needed Transformation. [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-635]. Washington, D.C.: May 
20, 2008. 

A Call for Stewardship: Enhancing the Federal Government's Ability to 
Address Key Fiscal and Other 21st Century Challenges. [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-93SP]. Washington, D.C.: 
December 2007. 

Highlights of a GAO Forum: Modernizing Federal Disability Policy. 
[hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-07-934SP]. 
Washington, D.C.: August 3, 2007. 

Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance and 
Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies. [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-06-15]. Washington, D.C.: October 
21, 2005. 

Federal Disability Assistance: Wide Array of Programs Needs to Be 
Examined in Light of 21st Century Challenges. [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-626]. Washington, D.C.: June 
2, 2005. 

Informing Our Nation: Improving How to Understand and Assess the USA's 
Position and Progress. [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-
bin/getrpt?GAO-05-1]. Washington, D.C.: November 10, 2004. 

Forum on Key National Indicators: Assessing the Nation's Position and 
Progress. [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-672SP]. 
Washington, D.C.: May 2003. 

[End of section] 

Footnotes: 

[1] National Council on Disability, Keeping Track: National Disability 
Status and Program Performance Indicators (Washington, D.C., 2008). 

[2] GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance 
and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-06-15] (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 1, 
2005) 

[End of section] 

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