Department of Education:

Improved Oversight and Controls Could Help Education Better Respond to Evolving Priorities

GAO-11-194: Published: Feb 10, 2011. Publicly Released: Feb 10, 2011.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

George A. Scott
(202) 512-3000
contact@gao.gov

 

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

The U.S. Department of Education (Education) manages one of the largest discretionary appropriations of any federal agency, and plays a key role in supporting efforts to meet the nation's education goals. While Education managed a discretionary appropriation of over $160 billion in fiscal year 2009 and was responsible for administering about 200 grant programs, it has the smallest workforce of any cabinet agency. As requested, this report examines (1) the key high-level management challenges facing Education, (2) Education's strategic management of its workforce, (3) Education's design of internal controls to help ensure accountability over contracts and student aid grants, and (4) Education's information technology (IT) management controls. To do this, GAO reviewed relevant Education documents and interviewed Education program and management officials about strategic workforce management, IT, contracts, and Pell Grants.

Education faces challenges in managing expanded responsibilities and evolving program priorities. In recent years Education has faced a large increase in the amount of grant funding and programs that it is responsible for managing. Education's annual budget increased by nearly 36 percent in real terms between fiscal years 2000 and 2008, and Congress authorized additional funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). Education will be further challenged to administer additional competitive programs under the Recovery Act, and current legislative proposals may shift additional programs to competitive award processes. This new emphasis on competitive programs may change job requirements for grants managers and increase demands on staff to monitor these programs. Education has improved its strategic workforce planning and performance management systems, but lacks workload data and sufficient oversight of performance standards and appraisals. Education has addressed many key elements of effective strategic workforce planning identified by GAO. However, a lack of reliable data on workload has limited the ability of the agency to accurately estimate resource needs and inform workforce planning efforts. Education has recently made improvements to its performance management system, but the system lacks sufficient oversight to ensure that performance standards and appraisals are consistent across the department. Education has developed overall guidance directed at maintaining financial accountability over two of its challenging resource management areas--contract monitoring and Pell Grants. However, Education has not yet developed and implemented detailed procedures for all control activities essential to ensuring that its contract monitoring policy directives are effectively carried out, including conducting supervisory reviews and documenting contract monitoring activity. Such deficiencies impair Education's ability to maintain effective financial accountability over its significant contract resource investment. GAO's review of internal controls over its Pell Grants program did not identify any flaws in their overall design. Education has developed key IT management controls, but still faces challenges with planning and investment management. Education has developed an information resources management strategic plan as required, but did so prior to the development of an updated department strategic plan, and without incorporating the IT goals from other key planning documents. In addition, Education has established controls to evaluate its IT investments, but has not conducted postimplementation reviews as required. Education has taken steps to improve IT security and privacy, but is still working to address a 2009 recommendation by the Education Office of the Inspector General about implementing appropriate security controls. GAO recommends that Education take steps to better estimate workloads; strengthen safeguards over its performance management system; properly implement established contract monitoring guidelines; and improve its management controls over IT resources. Education generally agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Education indicated that the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) has collaborated more broadly among the subject matter experts. The Information Resources Management Strategic Plan was revised in May 2012 and reflects the efforts to address the contents of the Open Government, Strategic Sustainability Performance and Data Center Consolidation plans.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should build on Education's IT management efforts by directing the Chief Information Officer to update the IRM strategic plan to reflect goals from the Open Government, Strategic Sustainability Performance, and Data Center Consolidation plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department's Information Resources Management Strategic Plan was revised to reflect the latest Department Strategic Plan (May 2012).

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should build on Education's IT management efforts by directing the Chief Information Officer to ensure that during the strategic planning process, the information resources management (IRM) strategic plan is aligned with and informed by the department's strategic plan to eliminate any potential risk of major IT investments not supporting the department's most current priorities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2011, the Department of Education (Education) and Education's Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) developed quality control procedures for review of contract files and contractor past performance reports. Education established procedures requiring a yearly review of contractor performance evaluations for a sample of contracts by groups within Education and FSA. FSA updated its Contract Review Board and Peer Review Procedures to include steps for reviews of contract monitoring plans and the inclusion of the COR appointment letter. In addition, FSA's new Contracting Officer's Representative (COR) Records File Management and Policy provides that the Contracting Officer review the COR file on an annual basis for completeness of documentation. According to the policy, the COR file shall include contract monitoring plans and COR appointment memoranda letter.

    Recommendation: To help improve contract monitoring controls, the Secretary of Education should direct the Chief Operating Officer of FSA to develop comprehensive quality control procedures that include guidance for review of contract files and contractor past performance reports to ensure that files are complete and contain documentation to evidence compliance with departmental contracting policies, including the following documents: (1) contractor performance evaluations, (2) contract monitoring plans, and (3) contracting officers' representative appointment memoranda.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2011, the Department of Education's Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) issued a new policy entitled Contracting Officer's Representative (COR) Records File Management and Policy, which outlines how contract monitoring activities and results should be documented, retained, and shared. The policy provides that the COR should 1) file and retain a Contract Monitoring Plan, records related to the inspection or testing of deliverables, and documentation to support the acceptance of deliverables in the contract file; 2) use hardcopy files with references to the location of electronic records as needed; 3) ensure that electronic records are accessible in the COR's absences, and 4) provide the file to the Contracting Officer on a yearly basis, for review and inclusion in the official contract file.

    Recommendation: To help improve contract monitoring controls, the Secretary of Education should direct the Chief Operating Officer of FSA to develop procedures that outline how contract monitoring activities and results should be documented, retained, and shared.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2011, the Department of Education's Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) issued a new policy entitled Contracting Officer's Representative (COR) Records File Management and Policy and updated the duties in its COR appointment memorandum to address the filing and retention of evidence demonstrating receipt and acceptance of contracted goods and services. The new COR file management policy provides that CORs' files should contain copies of all correspondence pertaining to contract performance, including recommendation on the acceptance of deliverables. The contracting officer's appointment memorandum provides that CORs should document their recommendation for acceptance through email to the Contracting Officer.

    Recommendation: To help improve contract monitoring controls, the Secretary of Education should direct the Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid (FSA) to develop procedures that detail how to file and retain evidence demonstrating receipt and acceptance of contracted goods and services.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Education indicated that as part of the launch of its new performance management system, REsults ACHieved (REACH), it provided extensive training to both managers/supervisors and employees on setting expectations and creating an effective performance management culture. In FY12, the Office of Management: 1) provided training for managers and supervisors on conducting 2011 performance appraisals as well as training for employees; 2) provided coaching to managers and supervisors on establishing FY12 REACH performance plans, and 3) conducted a review of FY12 REACH plans. In June and July 2012, the agency conducted an independent review of FY12 REACH plans across most Education offices. The Human Capital and Client Services Office worked with each office to review the entire 10% sample from each office, using a worksheet to assure consistent expectations of performance plans. The agency will include the results of the review into training and assistance for managers, supervisors and employees. The agency will also continue to review a 10-25% sample of REACH plans each year to ensure that proper performance guidance is followed.

    Recommendation: To build on Education's current efforts to improve human capital management, the Secretary of Education should develop a formal process for reviewing performance standards and performance appraisal decisions to help ensure Education's performance management system is consistent across the department. For example, such a review could include an analysis of standards and appraisals for all Education employees over a 3 to 5 year cycle to assess whether performance standards and appraisal decisions are being applied consistently.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Education addressed this recommendation with several actions. The Human Capital Planning, Policy and Accountability office is collaborating with the Department's program offices and other Department support offices in a workforce planning process. In 2012, the agency conducted a series of interviews with program offices and issued a corporate workforce planning proposal. In addition, the Human Capital and Client Services Office (HCCS) conducted a position review in September 2012 and issued recommendations for reclassifying positions.

    Recommendation: To build on Education's current efforts to improve human capital management, the Secretary of Education should provide guidance to program offices on developing data-based estimates of workload, and incorporating these data into department workforce planning. This effort could include conducting an assessment of workload, developing an evidence-based estimate of staff needed to meet agency responsibilities using valid and reliable data, and using this estimate to inform agency budget requests and expenditures for human resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Procedures for conducting post-implementation reviews were developed and deployed in August 2011.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should build on Education's IT management efforts by directing the Chief Information Officer to finalize and approve department guidance for implementing postimplementation reviews and conduct these reviews, where appropriate, to assess lessons learned and identify potential improvements to the IT management process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 24, 2014

Sep 10, 2014

Aug 22, 2014

Jul 16, 2014

Jun 16, 2014

Jun 4, 2014

Apr 30, 2014

Mar 12, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here