Fish and Wildlife Service:

Challenges to Managing the Carlsbad, California, Field Office's Endangered Species Workload

GAO-01-203: Published: Jan 31, 2001. Publicly Released: Feb 27, 2001.

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The Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Carlesbad office is developing a computerized project-tracking system for its consultation and habitat conservation planning (HCP) projects. This system, if properly implemented, should improve the office's record keeping and its ability to track the status of projects and help determine why they are in that status. The new system could also improve project management by allowing office managers to determine how long an applicant has been involved in the consultation or HCP process and whether the recommended time frames for completing consultations and the targeted frames for processing HCPs have been exceeded. The Carlsbad office will still have difficulty completing its consultations and HCP projects within recommended or targeted time frames if it is unable to address its staffing problems. An inability to hire new staff and retain existing, experienced staff has made it difficult for the Carlsbad office to meet the demands of its workload. Because the Carlsbad office does not maintain its project files in accordance with federal internal control standards and FWS' guidelines, there has often been confusion between the office and its customers on what was agreed to and why. In addition, without adequate documentation, managers and others have a difficult time determining whether the status of a project is justified. Although the Carlsbad office has developed an informal process for handling customer complaints, the process has many weaknesses regarding the handling of complaint data.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO reported that between fiscal year 1997 and 2000, the Carlsbad, California, Fish and Wildlife Service Field Office had averaged about 13 staff losses per year, most of which were in nonclerical positions, such as biologists, who are key to handling most of the office's workload. Of the 35 staff who left the Field Office for the 2-year period prior to January 2001, about 46 percent were experienced employees. Also, the average separation rate of career biologists in the Field Office was about 17 percent compared to four percent Service-wide. Field Office officials stated that the loss of experienced staff puts added pressure on supervisors and managers who have to train new staff while responding to an increasingly heavy workload. Furthermore, staff shortages compound the workload problem and eventually cause some existing staff to seek other employment. On May 15, 2001, the Department of the Interior informed GAO that it has worked with the Office of Personnel Management to establish an open register for fish and wildlife biologist positions. The use of the open register became effective in February 2001. Having an open register will improve the Field Office's ability to more quickly recruit qualified candidates. By filling vacancies, it will also contribute to improving the staff retention rate by redistributing and reducing the high workloads that was the cause of some staff separations.

    Recommendation: To improve the Service's overall operations, including customer service, and specifically the operations of its Carlsbad field office, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to identify and assess options for improving the Carlsbad office's ability to hire and retain staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO reported that the Carlsbad, California, Fish and Wildlife Service Field Office had not followed federal standards and service guidelines for documenting actions related to consultations and habitat conservation plans under the Endangered Species Act. Federal internal control standards state that transactions should be promptly recorded to maintain their relevance to management in controlling operations and making decisions and to help ensure that all transactions are completely and accurately recorded. Furthermore, the standards stipulate that all transactions and other significant events need to be clearly documented, that the documentation should be readily available for examination, and that all documentation and records should be properly managed and maintained. Moreover, service guidelines state that the administrative file should contain records of phone contacts and records of any advice or recommendation provided by the Service's biologist. During the review, GAO found the field office's project files to be incomplete. For example, for the nine formal consultation project files GAO examined, the only document in the file was the Field Office's biological opinion. GAO also found that the office's files were not well maintained. Specifically, some project files contained documents that were not organized in any manner, and in other files, documents were missing. In addition, project files were located in three different buildings instead of being centrally located and readily available for examination. On May 15, 2001, the Department of the Interior informed GAO that the Carlsbad Field Office has purchased additional file storage equipment to centralize all files originating in fiscal year 2001. All project files are now kept in the centralized filing area and each file is cross-referenced with a unique number that corresponds to its entry in the new computerized database for tracking the office's workload. This will allow for much greater ease in locating necessary project files. Also, it will be easier for supervisors to locate files to ascertain whether they contain the information needed to comply with federal documentation standards and Service guidelines.

    Recommendation: To improve the Service's overall operations, including customer service, and specifically the operations of its Carlsbad field office, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to ensure that the Carlsbad field office complies with federal internal control standards by centrally locating all files on consultations and HCPs. Furthermore, the Carlsbad office should develop procedures to periodically review these files to determine if they contain the complete history of the projects, including documentation of all agreements between the applicant and the Service.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our January 2001 report "Fish and Wildlife Service: Challenges to Managing the Carlsbad, California, Field Office's Endangered Species Workload," we found that the Carlsbad office did not have effective systems for tracking its workload of (1) consultations--the Endangered Species Act requirement that federal agencies consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to ensure that the activities they authorize, fund, or conduct will not jeopardize endangered or threatened species; and (2) habitat conservation plans. FWS and its Carlsbad office were in the process of implementing a computerized system for tracking consultations and habitat conservation plans. GAO recommended that FWS should assess whether a computerized project-tracking system should be implemented agencywide. FWS determined that a computerized tracking system would assist in improving consistency and accuracy, and in 2007, FWS implemented a nationwide database--the Tracking and Integrated Logging System (TAILS)--that tracks consultations. The agency plans to expand TAILS to include habitat conservation plans in 2009.

    Recommendation: To improve the Service's overall operations, including customer service, and specifically the operations of its Carlsbad field office, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to assess whether a computerized project-tracking system, such as the one being implemented in the Carlsbad office, will allow consistency and accuracy in obtaining and reporting information on the status of consultations and the HCP workload and, if so, consider whether such a system should be implemented Service-wide.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO reported that the Carlsbad, California, Fish and Wildlife Service Field Office did not have effective systems for tracking its workload of consultations and Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs). The manual logs that the Carlsbad office used to track consultations were incomplete and contained inaccurate data. For example, GAO estimated that the consultation tracking system was incomplete and inaccurate for 769 (75 percent) of 1,026 informal and formal consultations that occurred from fiscal year 1992, through fiscal year 1999. Also, GAO reported that the Service's nationwide database for tracking HCPs was incomplete and contained errors limiting the usefulness of the database as a management tool for determining how long it takes to complete HCPs. As a result, the Carlsbad office could not determine with any certainty how many consultations or HCPs it had underway, whether its actions were completed on time, or how long applicants had been involved in these processes. At the time of the review, the Service and its Carlsbad office were taking actions to implement a computerized project tracking system for the office's consultation and HCP workload. On May 15, 2001, the Department of the Interior informed GAO that the Carlsbad Field Office had developed a computerized database to track workload, including section 7 consultations and HCPs. Interior stated that staff who are responsible for completing consultations and HCPs are currently being trained in the proper use of the database to ensure consistency and accuracy of information that is being entered into the computer system. For example, the biologists who handle consultations have been trained on how to enter data into the new system. Furthermore, supervisory staff have developed quality control measures and applied them to the database to help ensure consistency and accuracy of the information entered in the database. These measures include assigning a unique number to each consultation for its entire history, configuring the database to only accept information that is specific to the consultation number assigned, and programming the database to require certain data, such as the dates that the consultations began, before another entry will be accepted by the program. In addition, Interior stated that senior managers and the database administrator have developed procedures to periodically review the project tracking database for quality control purposes. Specifically, managers are required to randomly select entries in the database, including the project history entries that should document all dealings with other agencies or the public, and determine whether supporting documentation exists in the files. Furthermore, the database administrator randomly checks projects entered in the database to ensure that data for all required fields are being properly entered.

    Recommendation: To improve the Service's overall operations, including customer service, and specifically the operations of its Carlsbad field office, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to ensure that the Carlsbad field office's new computerized project-tracking system for consultations and HCPs is properly implemented and that procedures are developed to periodically review the data to determine that they are promptly and accurately entered.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a Customer Service Center that receives questions and complaints from the public and can be accessed via the FWS website or a toll-free number. FWS has written procedures for handling complaints. Based on information obtained during a pilot phase, most inquiries come via the toll-free number, which is managed by a contractor. The contractor responds to routine questions and refers complex calls to FWS headquarters. The contractor also refers issues to headquarters when it detects particular patterns in the types of calls or concerns that are raised to its attention.

    Recommendation: To improve the Service's overall operations, including customer service, and specifically the operations of its Carlsbad field office, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to revise its customer service policy to include specific requirements for a customer complaint system and make that system easily accessible to the public. Furthermore, if the development of a Department-wide customer complaint system does not proceed, the Service should implement its own system. This system should include, at a minimum, requirements for written procedures on how complaints will be received, directed, resolved, and documented. The system should also provide for complaint data to be centrally collected and analyzed to ensure that the root causes of dissatisfaction are identified and fixed. In addition, the Service's system could be used as a pilot or model for a Department-wide system.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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