Coast Guard:

Vessel Identification System Development Needs to Be Reassessed

GAO-02-477: Published: May 24, 2002. Publicly Released: May 24, 2002.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

David A. Powner
(202) 512-9286
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The September 11th attacks emphasized the need for sound government information management of potential risks to U.S. assets and citizens. One possible source of that risk is through the vessels that navigate our ports and waterways. Whereas most large commercial vessels and many large recreational vessels obtain federal documentation, most smaller vessels are registered only in the state where they are primarily used. Congress, in 1998, required the Secretary of Transportation to develop a system to share individual states' vessel information as well as information on federally documented vessels. Fourteen years after legislation required the Coast Guard to develop a vessel identification system (VIS), no such system exists. In 1995 the agency contracted to develop the Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement system, of which VIS was a subcomponent. The Coast Guard accepted the contractor-developed VIS in 1998 despite system performance problems, intending to resolve these problems as the system evolved. However, the Coast Guard later found that there was no viable way to correct these problems, and that the cost to populate the system with states' data would be high. Even though the Coast Guard spent $9 million to plan and develop VIS, it was never implemented. Recently, the Coast Guard initiated a new three-phase VIS development effort and developed a rudimentary system called VIS 2.0. The new system contains information on documented vessels and on state's data. However, the Coast Guard has yet to develop detailed plans for the full system development and cannot estimate when a system capable of uploading, integrating, and updating states' data may be developed. Even as the Coast Guard is initiating efforts to plan for the full system development, it does not intend to incorporate a rigorous acquisition process--including comprehensive analyses and management oversight.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard reported that, based on many years of effort to design and implement VIS and after consultation with numerous State Boating Law Administrators, the Coast Guard continues to view state participation in VIS and having a unique vessel identifier--preferably the hull identification number--as essential elements of an effective system.

    Recommendation: In order to mitigate the risk that the Coast Guard will continue to spend funds on VIS but not fulfill the requirements of the 1998 law, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Coast Guard commandant to determine if the problems with nonunique hull identification numbers (HIN) and a lack of state participation are still pertinent.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard reported that it is seeking to mitigate risks to the VIS system development. Specifically, the Coast Guard has established regulations that will eventually ensure that all vessels are assigned valid identification numbers. The Coast Guard also noted that obtaining mandatory State participation can only be resolved by Congressional action to amend the statute.

    Recommendation: In order to mitigate the risk that the Coast Guard will continue to spend funds on VIS but not fulfill the requirements of the 1998 law, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Coast Guard commandant to, if problems with nonunique HINs and a lack of state participation are still pertinent, identify what can be done to mitigate these risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard met with congressional staff to discuss risks and options for addressing the risks in May 2002.

    Recommendation: In order to mitigate the risk that the Coast Guard will continue to spend funds on VIS but not fulfill the requirements of the 1998 law, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Coast Guard commandant to brief relevant congressional committees and subcommittees on critical VIS risks and options for addressing these risks within three months of the date of this report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As recommended, the Coast Guard reevaluated its need for VIS within its broader mission under the Department of Homeland Security. The agency conducted an analysis of VIS requirements in November 2004 to ensure that the requirements met the Department of Homeland Security's Marine Domain Awareness needs. Based on that analysis, the agency determined that VIS data is an integral component in support of its Marine Domain Awareness mission.

    Recommendation: If the Coast Guard decides to move forward in developing a VIS, it should do so in compliance with a rigorous system acquisition approach. Specifically, it should reassess mission needs in light of evolving homeland security initiatives and define and validate user requirements to support these mission needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, Coast Guard officials analyzed alternatives for the VIS system, including the use of commercial sources.

    Recommendation: If the Coast Guard decides to move forward in developing a VIS, it should do so in compliance with a rigorous system acquisition approach. Specifically, it should identify alternatives for fulfilling mission needs, including the use of commercial vendors and new technologies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Coast Guard officials assessed the costs, benefits, and risks of the alternatives for establishing VIS capabilities. As a result of this analysis, the Coast Guard decided not to develop a new VIS system, but instead to establish a prototype of a system that queries commercial sources to determine the usefulness of their data. The agency also plans to evaluate the cost of purchasing data from the commercial sources under consideration.

    Recommendation: If the Coast Guard decides to move forward in developing a VIS, it should do so in compliance with a rigorous system acquisition approach. Specifically, it should perform feasibility studies as well as cost, benefit, and risk analyses of identified alternatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard is not currently planning to design a new VIS system. As a result of its alternatives analysis, Coast Guard officials decided to explore utilizing commercial vendors' data rather than to develop a system.

    Recommendation: If the Coast Guard decides to move forward in developing a VIS, it should do so in compliance with a rigorous system acquisition approach. Specifically, it should select a system design.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard is not planning to acquire a new VIS system. Officials reported that they are considering purchasing data from a commercial source.

    Recommendation: If the Coast Guard decides to move forward in developing a VIS, it should do so in compliance with a rigorous system acquisition approach. Specifically, it should develop an acquisition plan that incorporates cost and schedule milestones.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard has decided not to move forward with developing a new VIS system, but instead to make modifications to its existing system to take advantage of existing data. The Coast Guard implemented internal controls such as oversight by an architecture review board and configuration control board of the minor modifications that have been made to the existing VIS database.

    Recommendation: If the Coast Guard decides to move forward in developing a VIS, it should do so in compliance with a rigorous system acquisition approach. Specifically, it should obtain oversight from the Coast Guard acquisition board throughout the VIS acquisition process to help ensure that it is effectively managed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard is investigating the costs of purchasing data from commercial vendors to be used in an existing VIS database.

    Recommendation: The Coast Guard should evaluate the use of commercial products that could provide vessel information as an immediate, interim solution until a system that fully meets the requirements of the Ship Mortgage Act can be developed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 22, 2016

Sep 21, 2016

Sep 15, 2016

Sep 14, 2016

Sep 13, 2016

Sep 12, 2016

Sep 7, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here