Natural Resources Conservation Service:

Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen Program and Financial Accountability

RCED-00-83: Published: Apr 7, 2000. Publicly Released: May 8, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS) efforts to improve its accountability, focusing on the: (1) agency's new approach and the status of its implementation; and (2) extent to which the approach will improve accountability.

GAO noted that: (1) NRCS' new approach to improving accountability is based principally on implementing the requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 and establishing four new databases to compile better information on the: (a) agency's accomplishments; (b) full cost of programs and activities; (c) workload at the local level; and (d) future workforce needs; (2) in addition, NRCS' Oversight and Evaluation staff, who conduct reviews to assess quality, accountability, effectiveness, and consistency in the agency's delivery of conservation assistance, is an important part of the agency's approach; (3) NRCS plans to use the information from its new databases to measure its progress towards meeting its strategic objectives, more accurately account for staff time and funding, analyze workload to develop budget proposals, and estimate future staffing levels and skills needs; (4) NRCS has prepared agencywide strategic and annual performance plans, as part of Department of Agriculture's strategic and annual performance plans, which were submitted to the President and Congress; (5) its state offices have also begun developing annual performance and business plans; (6) the agency has also used its performance goals to guide its allocation of fiscal year 2000 funds to its state offices; (7) equally important, NRCS has largely completed the databases and begun using some of the information for agency decisionmaking and reporting on its performance; (8) if implemented as planned, NRCS' approach is likely to improve accountability by providing better information and analyses on how the agency uses its resources and what it accomplishes; (9) the agency could better integrate the financial management function and the accountability approach; (10) unless the agency more accurately accounts for its costs, it will continue to lack the financial information needed for internal decisionmaking and for external reports to Congress and other stakeholders that demonstrate NRCS is implementing its programs cost effectively; (11) with respect to planning, the agency could make its annual performance goals more results-oriented and better indicate progress made during the fiscal year toward achieving its strategic objectives; and (12) NRCS' Oversight and Evaluation staff--who provide an important internal review of the effectiveness and efficiency of the agency's programs, activities, and operations--could be more independent if it were to report directly to the Chief or Associate Chief of NRCS, rather than to one of the managers subject to review by the group.

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 the success of NRCS' efforts to improve its accountability, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of NRCS to improve the integration of financial management and the accountability approach by: (1) revising the agency's strategic planning and accountability policy to make financial management an integral part; (2) developing a plan, including a methodology and timeframe, to incorporate nonpersonnel costs into its total cost accounting database in order to provide accurate information on program costs; and (3) evaluating alternatives and taking appropriate actions to more accurately account for costs reported by its financial management system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has (1) revised its financial and accountability policies and the revisions have been incorporated into software and user guidance, (2) implemented an approach to incorporate non-personnel costs into TCAS by pro-rating and accounting for these costs by program based on actual time staff charged to those programs, and (3) implemented a direct charge approach agency-wide in fiscal year 2004, to more accurately account for costs reported in its accounting system--FFIS. Under this approach, employees time charges and pro-rated administrative costs reported in TCAS will automatically be reported in FFIS and then reported to Congress.

    Recommendation: To ensure the success of NRCS' efforts to improve its accountability, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of NRCS to incorporate into future strategic and annual performance plans: (1) goals that better represent the desired outcomes of the agency's programs; and (2) a better articulation of partners' contributions to the agency's goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has taken major steps to implement this recommendation. NRCS has developed detailed performance measures and outcomes for each of its programs. This major effort was completed in May 2003. Also, NRCS' new Conservation Information System includes information on the resources provided by the agency's partners and their accomplishments. These data should enable NRCS, in future strategic and performance plans, to better articulate the partners' contributions to the agency's goals.

    Recommendation: To ensure the success of NRCS' efforts to improve its accountability, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of NRCS to have the Oversight and Evaluation staff report directly to the Chief or Associate Chief to better ensure that it maintains its independence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although the Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS) has no plans at this time to have Oversight and Evaluation (O&E) staff report directly to the Chief or Associate Chief of NRCS, they have taken significant steps to ensure the auditors' independence. Specifically, NRCS has created additional independence for the O&E staff by reassigning the resource allocation function from the Deputy Chief responsible for managing the staff to the Chief.

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