Key Issues > Improving Federal Programs that Serve Tribes and Their Members - High Risk Issue
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Improving Federal Programs that Serve Tribes and Their Members - High Risk Issue

Concerns about ineffective federal administration of Indian education and healthcare programs and federal mismanagement of energy resources held in trust for tribes and their members has resulted in the designation of federal management of these programs as high risk. 

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The United States fulfills its responsibilities to Indian tribes and Indians, in part, by:

  • administering education programs to approximately 41,000 Indian students and providing administrative support services to schools through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA),
  • administering health care programs to approximately 2.2 million tribal members through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service (IHS), and
  • managing energy development that occurs on the 55 million surface acres or from the 57 million subsurface acres held in trust or restricted status for tribes and their members—conducted primarily through BIA.

However, there are concerns in each of these areas related to oversight, collaboration with stakeholders, workforce planning, equipment and infrastructure, and use of data. Specifically:

Federal agencies conduct limited and inconsistent oversight of federal activities:

  • No actions have been taken to address key weaknesses in its oversight of BIE school expenditures, including implementing written oversight procedures and risk criteria for ensuring schools use Interior funds for their intended purpose of providing BIE students a quality education.
  • IHS provides limited and inconsistent oversight of the quality of care provided in its federally operated facilities. As a result, the agency cannot ensure that patients receive quality care.
  • Lengthy review and response times at BIA have hindered development of Indian energy resources in the past and BIA does not have a documented process or data needed to track agency review times. Without a process and data, BIA cannot ensure that its review process is transparent and efficient or that documents are moving forward in a timely manner.

Federal agencies lack effective collaboration and communication with stakeholders:  

  • IHS does not require its area offices to inform IHS headquarters if they distribute program increase funds to local Purchase Referred Care (PRC) programs using different criteria than the PRC allocation formula suggested by headquarters. As a result, IHS may be unaware of additional funding variation across areas.
  • BIA has taken steps to form an Indian Energy Service Center that is intended to, among other things, help expedite the permitting process associated with Indian energy development. However, BIA did not coordinate with key regulatory agencies, such as Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, the Service Center is not the central point for collaborating with all federal regulatory partners generally involved in energy development, nor does it serve as a single point of contact for permitting requirements.

Federal agencies have conducted limited federal workforce planning activities:

  • The capacity of BIA and BIE school staff to address school facility needs is limited due to gaps in expertise, steady declines in staffing levels, and limited institutional knowledge.  
  • An insufficient workforce has been the biggest impediment to ensuring patients could access timely primary care through the Indian health care system, according to IHS. Over 1,550 vacancies for health care professionals exist throughout the IHS health care system including: physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners.
  • BIA has not conducted key workforce planning activities, such as identifying the key workforce skills needed to achieve agency goals, and assessing any skill gaps, even though it has high vacancy rates at some of its agency offices. These workforce issues contribute to BIA’s management shortcomings that have hindered Indian energy development.

Outdated and deteriorating equipment, technology, and infrastructure hinder federal efforts:

  • Aging BIE school facilities and equipment contribute to degraded and unsafe conditions for students and staff.
  • Access to timely primary care at some health care facilities serving Indian communities is hindered by outdated medical and telecommunications equipment.
  • BIA does not have the necessary geographic information system (GIS) mapping data to identify ownership and use of resources, such as existing leases. Without GIS data, the process to identify transactions, such as leases and access agreements for Indian land and resources, can take significant time and staff resources because the process involves searching paper records stored in multiple locations.

Federal agencies lack complete and accurate data:

  • Sound information on safety and health conditions of all BIE schools does not exist. Specifically, its nationwide information on safety and health deficiencies at schools is not complete and accurate because of key weaknesses in its inspection program. Without inspection information that is complete and accurate, BIA and BIE cannot effectively determine the magnitude and severity of safety and health deficiencies at schools and cannot ensure their facilities are safe for students and staff and currently meet safety and health requirements. 
  • IHS does not have complete and consistent PRC program data.

BIA does not have the data it needs to verify who owns some Indian oil and gas resources or identify where leases are in effect. In some cases, BIA cannot verify ownership because federal cadastral surveys—the means by which land is defined, divided, traced, and recorded—cannot be found or are outdated. The ability to account for Indian resources would assist BIA in fulfilling its federal trust responsibility, and determining ownership is a necessary step for BIA to approve leases and other energy-related documents.

Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

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High Risk: Programs That Serve Tribes and Their Members
  • portrait of Melissa Emrey-Arras
    • Melissa Emrey-Arras
    • Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security
    • EmreyArrasM@gao.gov
    • 617-788-0534