Major Management Challenges at the Department of Agriculture
Overall, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made good progress in addressing six of the seven key management challenges and program risks GAO identified in 2003. GAO has not done sufficient follow-up to report on the remaining one since the 2003 report.
USDA has taken a number of actions to ensure adequate security in its operations and activities. It has tightened physical security at its major laboratories that handle pathogens with the potential to pose a severe threat to both human and animal health if accidentally or intentionally released. GAO has made recommendations to the department to better secure the facility that handles the most dangerous pathogens that cause foreign animal diseases. However, disease agents are inherently more difficult to secure than other material and additional challenges remain. In addition, to help protect the U.S. food supply from deliberate contamination, the department has developed and disseminated voluntary guidelines and provided training and educational materials to food manufacturers and processors on physical and personnel security at those facilities. For further protection, GAO recommended that the department provide facility-security training for its food safety inspectors and identify and seek any additional authority it may need regarding security measures at food processing facilities.
To improve its delivery of services to farmers , in 2004 USDA introduced a new Web-based “customer statement,” providing its customers 24-hour access to information on their participation, application, and payment status in various commodity and conservation programs and the ability to obtain information on farm loans, conservation plans and land units. USDA anticipates that as it enhances its systems, more customers will conduct business online instead of traveling to county offices. This is significant because about one-third of the department's 110,000 employees are located in its 2,600 county and state offices. The expected improvements and efficiencies from its e-government initiatives appear to be a good first step in improving its delivery of services to farmers; however, the department needs to critically assess its continued need for such a large field office structure. In 2004, to reduce the cost of farm programs, GAO recommended that the department (1) strengthen its regulations and oversight of payments to better ensure that farm payment recipients do not circumvent payment limitations and (2) strengthen its oversight of companies delivering federal crop insurance to farmers to limit future insolvencies.
USDA and the other federal agencies responsible for food safety have continued to make modest improvements to their food safety inspection programs. Nonetheless, the disparity in oversight and inspection resources, as well as the differences in laws and regulations, leave the U.S. system fragmented, inconsistent, and lacking in a strategic design that is intended to protect the public. Under the current system, meat and poultry production receive continuous inspection while fish, shellfish, produce, and other foods are inspected sporadically, if at all, and most food that is recalled is never recovered. GAO has made several recommendations to the department for ensuring prompt and complete recalls of food discovered to be unsafe. In addition, under this system, many industry sectors must respond to multiple, often conflicting, requirements. In March 2004, GAO suggested that Congress consider enacting comprehensive, uniform, and risk-based food safety legislation and establish a single food safety agency or, if the Congress does not opt for an entire reorganization, that it consider modifying existing laws to designate a lead agency for food safety inspection matters. Enhancing the safety of the nation's food supply will remain spotty until the department and the other agencies that share this responsibility are brought together in a single food safety focus.
With respect to providing food assistance and improving program integrity , the department and states have taken actions to reduce errors in the delivery of nutrition assistance. The Food Stamp Program payment error rate, which includes both overpayments and underpayments to service recipients, has fallen each year since 1999 and is now at a record low. However, despite these improvements, improper food stamp benefit payments, which include both overpayments and underpayments, accounted for $1.4 billion of the $21 billion program in fiscal year 2003. GAO has recommended that USDA collaborate with the Department of Health and Human Services to encourage states to better align participant reporting requirements among their programs, in part to help reduce the risk of payment errors.
USDA continues to face financial management challenges due to long-standing material internal control weaknesses, including weaknesses in financial management and information technology security controls. For the second consecutive year, it has restated its prior year financial statements. For example, in fiscal year 2004, the department made $5 billion in adjustments to correct errors and reclassify amounts in its fiscal year 2003 financial statements. In addition, its financial management systems do not substantially comply with the requirements of the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act of 1996, thus further hampering its ability to produce reliable and timely financial information to support management decisions. Moreover, USDA reported holding over $6 billion of federal nontax debt that was delinquent more than 180 days as of September 30, 2003. The department's Farm Service Agency and Rural Housing Service have taken important actions to implement key provisions of the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 and improve collections of such debt. However, more progress is needed in implementing administrative wage garnishment, which is authorized by the act, as the department has reported few collections from the use of this key debt collection tool. Because the Forest Service has made progress in achieving financial accountability, GAO no longer considers Forest Service financial management to be high risk. Nonetheless, it continues to have material internal control weaknesses, including weaknesses in financial reporting and information security controls, and lacks substantial compliance with federal financial management systems requirements and federal accounting standards. The Forest Service has efforts under way or planned that if effectively implemented, should help to resolve many of its financial management problems. Such efforts are designed to address internal control and noncompliance issues identified in audit reports as well as organizational issues.
With respect to improving performance accountability at the Forest Service , since GAO's January 2003 management challenges report, the Forest Service has not yet developed a way to account for and report on its operations, accomplishments, and expenditures. However, the Forest Service has initiated or planned actions to address these concerns and has a continuing need to make improvements in its performance accountability. In May 2003, to ensure progress in achieving performance accountability, GAO recommended that the department direct the Forest Service to (1) appoint a senior executive to guide the timely implementation of an effective performance accountability system and (2) report to the Congress on its progress in implementing a performance accountability system.
GAO has not carried out sufficient follow-up work to update the department's progress in resolving discrimination complaints since the January 2003 management challenges report.
Related GAO Products
Ensuring Adequate Security
Bioterrorism: A Threat to Agriculture and the Food Supply . GAO-04-259T . Washington, D.C.: November 19, 2003.
Combating Bioterrorism: Actions Needed to Improve Security at Plum Island Animal Disease Center . GAO-03-847 . Washington, D.C.: September 19, 2003.
Food Processing Security: Voluntary Efforts Are Under Way, but Federal Agencies Cannot Fully Assess Their Implementation . GAO-03-342 . Washington, D.C.: February 14, 2003.
Improving the Delivery of Services to Farmers
Farm Program Payments: USDA Should Correct Weaknesses in Regulations and Oversight to Better Ensure Recipients Do Not Circumvent Payment Limitations . GAO-04-861T . Washington D.C.: June 16, 2004.
Crop Insurance: USDA Needs to Improve Oversight of Insurance Companies and Develop a Policy to Address Any Future Insolvencies . GAO-04-517 . Washington D.C.: June 1, 2004.
Farm Program Payments: USDA Needs to Strengthen Regulations and Oversight to Better Ensure Recipients Do Not Circumvent Payment Limitations . GAO-04-407 . Washington D.C.: Apr. 30, 2004.
Agricultural Conservation: Survey Results on USDA's Implementation of Food Security Act Compliance Provisions . GAO-03-492SP . Washington D.C.: April 21, 2003.
Agricultural Conservation: USDA Needs to Better Ensure Protection of Highly Erodible Cropland and Wetlands . GAO-03-418 . Washington D.C.: April 21, 2003.
Enhancing the Safety of the Nation's Food Supply
Food Safety: USDA and FDA Need to Better Ensure Prompt and Complete Recalls of Potentially Unsafe Food . GAO-05-51 . Washington, D.C.: October 6, 2004.
Antibiotic Resistance: Federal Agencies Need to Better Focus Efforts to Address Risk to Humans from Antibiotic Use in Animals , GAO-04-490 . Washington, D.C., April 22, 2004.
Federal Food Safety and Security System: Fundamental Restructuring is Needed to Address Fragmentation and Overlap , GAO-04-588T . Washington, D.C.: March 30, 2004.
Bioterrorism: A Threat to Agriculture and the Food Supply . GAO-04-259T .
Washington, D.C.: November 19, 2003.
Providing Food Assistance and Improving Program Integrity
Food Stamp Program: Farm Bill Options Ease Administrative Burden, but Opportunities Exist to Streamline Participant Reporting Rules Among Programs. GAO-04-916 . Washington, D.C.: September 16, 2004.
Food Stamp Program: Steps Have Been Taken to Increase Participation of Working Families, but Better Tracking of Efforts Is Needed. GAO-04-346 . Washington, D.C.: March 5, 2004.
School Meal Programs: Few Instances of Foodborne Outbreaks Reported, but Opportunities Exist to Enhance Outbreak Data and Food Safety Practices . GAO-03-530 . Washington, D.C.: May 9, 2003.
Improving Financial Management at the Forest Service
Forest Service Purchase Cards: Internal Control Weaknesses Resulted in Instances of Improper, Wasteful, and Questionable Purchases. GAO-03-786 . Washington, D.C.: August 11, 2003.
Forest Service: Year-end Financial Reporting Significantly Improved, but Certain Underlying Problems Remain. GAO-03-538 . Washington, D.C.: May 1, 2003.
Improving Performance Accountability at the Forest Service
Forest Service: Little Progress on Performance Accountability Likely Unless Management Addresses Key Challenges. GAO-03-503 . Washington, D.C.: May 1, 2003.