Forest Service:

Little Progress on Performance Accountability Likely Unless Management Addresses Key Challenges

GAO-03-503: Published: May 1, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 2, 2003.

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Historically, the Forest Service has not been able to provide Congress or the public with a clear understanding of what the Forest Service's 30,000 employees accomplish with the approximately $5 billion the agency receives every year. Since 1990, GAO has reported 7 times on performance accountability weaknesses at the Forest Service, including its inability to systematically link planning, budgeting, and results reporting. This report reviews the recent progress the Forest Service has made in resolving previously identified performance accountability problems and identifies key challenges the Forest Service must overcome to resolve these problems.

The Forest Service has made little real progress in resolving its long-standing performance accountability problems and, based on the status of its current efforts, remains years away from implementing a credible performance accountability system. Since June 2000, when we last reported on performance accountability at the Forest Service, the agency has continued to study the issue but has made little real progress. For example, in March 2002, the agency initiated a study of how several other federal agencies implemented their performance accountability systems and, by September 2002, had devised a draft plan for implementing a system of its own. However, broad support within the agency for implementing this plan could not be achieved, and an executive steering team was recently established to restudy the issue. While the agency continues to study and restudy the issue, opportunities to establish key linkages among components of a performance accountability system have been missed. For example, in April 2000, the agency began considering a new budget system and, in August 2001, a new work-plan system--two critical components that should be part of a performance accountability system. However, the Forest Service has yet to develop clear linkages between these new systems and its strategic goals and performance results. Without these linkages, the agency will be unable to report in an integrated, results-oriented way on what activities it completed, how much they cost, and what they accomplished--key elements of an effective performance accountability system. While we recognize that developing a performance accountability system is a complex, time-consuming process, other federal agencies with land management responsibilities have developed and implemented performance accountability systems and believe that their systems have produced multiple benefits. The Forest Service faces three key challenges that it must meet if it is to make more progress. First, the agency needs to establish clear lines of authority and responsibility for developing and implementing a performance accountability system. Currently, various senior executives have responsibilities for components of performance accountability; however, no one has overall responsibility and authority for ensuring these components are developed and properly linked. Second, the Forest Service needs to address its culture of consensus decision-making, which has made it difficult for the Forest Service to agree on how to develop and implement an integrated performance accountability system. Third, top agency leadership needs to give sufficient emphasis and priority to establishing a performance accountability system. The agency is currently giving greater emphasis to other priorities, like financial accountability. GAO recognizes the importance of, and need for, addressing the Forest Service's long-standing financial accountability problems, but believes more can and should be done to address the agency's performance accountability problems so that both performance and financial accountability can work in concert to assess and, ultimately, to improve the agency's overall performance.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure progress in achieving performance accountability, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to appoint a senior executive with decision-making authority and responsibility for developing a comprehensive plan, with milestones, to ensure the timely implementation of an effective performance accountability system. This executive should be held accountable for ensuring full implementation of the performance accountability system throughout all levels of the agency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service's Statement of Action (signed by the Secretary of Agriculture on October 10, 2003) reaffirmed that a senior executive has been assigned with responsibility for developing a comprehensive plan with milestones to ensure timely implementation of an effective performance accountability system. However, the Statement of Action does not explicitly make the senior executive accountable for ensuring full implementation of the system throughout all levels of the agency.

    Recommendation: To ensure progress in achieving performance accountability, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to appoint a senior executive with decision-making authority and responsibility for developing a comprehensive plan, with milestones, to ensure the timely implementation of an effective performance accountability system. This executive should be held accountable for meeting specific milestones for implementing the system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service's Statement of Action (signed by the Secretary of Agriculture on October 10, 2003) affirmed the assignment of a senior executive with responsibility for developing a comprehensive plan with milestones to ensure timely implementation of an effective performance accountability system. However, the Statement of Action does not explicitly make this executive accountable for meeting specific milestones for implementing the system.

    Recommendation: To ensure progress in achieving performance accountability, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to appoint a senior executive with decision-making authority and responsibility for developing a comprehensive plan, with milestones, to ensure the timely implementation of an effective performance accountability system. This executive should be held accountable for ensuring that the Forest Service's performance accountability system clearly links the key components needed to manage for results--plans, performance measures, budgets, work activities, expenditures, and accomplishments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service's Statement of Action (signed by the Secretary of Agriculture on October 10, 2003) affirmed that the Service appointed a senior executive with responsibility for developing a comprehensive plan with milestones to ensure timely implementation of an effective performance accountability system. The Statement of Action also noted that the Forest Service developed and published a comprehensive plan for implementing a performance accountability system.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should also direct the Chief of the Forest Service to report, beginning in 2004, on the agency's (1) progress in implementing a performance accountability system and the additional milestones to be accomplished in the agency's annual performance plans and (2) accomplishments in implementing its performance accountability system in its annual performance report to the Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service's Statement of Action (signed by the Secretary of Agriculture on October 10, 2003) states that the agency will submit its performance accountability plan as part of the fiscal year 2004 Annual Performance Plan to USDA, which will in turn submit it to OMB and Congress.

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