Nutrition Monitoring:

Mismanagement of Nutrition Survey Has Resulted in Questionable Data

RCED-91-117: Published: Jul 26, 1991. Publicly Released: Sep 11, 1991.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John W. Harman
(202) 512-5138
contact@gao.gov

 

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

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the Human Nutrition Information Service's (HNIS) 1987-88 Nationwide Food Consumption Survey (NFCS), focusing on the: (1) methodological soundness of the 1987-88 survey; and (2) effectiveness of the Department of Agriculture's management of the contractor hired to conduct the survey.

GAO found that: (1) flaws in the methodology of the 1987-88 survey, deviations from the survey's original design, and lax collection and processing controls raised doubts about the quality of the data in the 1987-88 survey; (2) results from the survey were not representative of the U.S. population, since only 34 percent of the households in the basic sample provided individual intake data; (3) some households may have been discouraged by the length and complexity of the NFCS questionnaire and the absence of incentives to participate; (4) poor contract management contributed to cost overruns, delays, and the contractor's failure to complete certain contract tasks; (5) contract costs increased from $6.2 million to $7.6 million and contract completion was delayed by 2 years; (6) the contracting officer's representative frequently exceeded his authority by directing the contractor to forego certain contract requirements and undertake unspecified work, and the contracting officer did not monitor the contract; and (7) the contractor did not complete key procedures required by the contract, which violated internal controls designed to protect the government from fraud, waste, and abuse.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although HNIS has begun and plans numerous actions to ensure the reliability of future NFCS data, its submission of a report to Congress has not been included as recommended. The agency informed GAO that it is reluctant to agree to submitting a separate report to Congress. The agency has until 1996 to finalize its decision.

    Recommendation: To minimize problems in future surveys, the Secretary of Agriculture, before requesting funds for another NFCS, should submit to Congress a report stating the steps to be taken and quality controls to be followed so that future surveys do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although HNIS has begun and plans numerous actions to ensure the reliability of future NFCS data, its submission of a report to Congress has not been included as recommended. The agency informed GAO that it is reluctant to agree to submitting a separate report to Congress. The agency has until 1996 to finalize its decision.

    Recommendation: To minimize problems in future surveys, the Secretary of Agriculture, before requesting funds for another NFCS, should submit to Congress a report describing a plan to ensure that the survey's data will be representative of the U.S. population.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HNIS has initiated steps to improve response rates on future surveys through various actions, including workshops, joint working groups, interagency agreements, and coordination activities with other agencies.

    Recommendation: To minimize problems in future surveys, the Secretary of Agriculture, before requesting funds for another NFCS, should submit to Congress a report demonstrating that HNIS has developed efficient survey instruments and procedures that reduce the burden on respondents, increase households' motivation to participate in NFCS, and meet essential data needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department is cautioning users of NFCS data on its limitations through speeches, presentations, and written and data tape notices.

    Recommendation: To address problems with the quality of the 1987-88 NFCS data, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct HNIS to assess whether the data for the low-income sample were biased or otherwise poor in quality and, if so, disclose those limitations in all relevant technical reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HNIS has incorporated a statement regarding the data quality problems to all federal agencies and researchers who have received NFCS data.

    Recommendation: To address problems with the quality of the 1987-88 NFCS data, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct HNIS to disclose in all NFCS technical reports limitations that the expert panel finds in the NFCS basic sample data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department has provided training for contract officials, developed minimal experience criteria for contract specialists, reorganized the monitoring division, and established special teams to ensure survey accountability.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Food and Nutrition Service and HNIS, in contracts for future surveys, to ensure that existing contracting procedures are followed and people are held accountable for carrying out their responsibilities. Particular attention should be given to contract planning, contract writing, compliance with the contracts' terms, and contract administration and monitoring by contracting officer's representatives and contracting officers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Jun 9, 2016

May 26, 2016

May 19, 2016

Apr 14, 2016

Jan 14, 2016

Jan 8, 2016

Jul 9, 2015

Jun 18, 2015

May 26, 2015

May 20, 2015

Looking for more? Browse all our products here