Park Service:

Managing for Results Could Strengthen Accountability

RCED-97-125: Published: Apr 10, 1997. Publicly Released: Apr 11, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed: (1) the process used by the National Park Service to develop budgets and establish operating priorities; (2) the limitations, if any, of the agency's priority-setting processes at a sample of parks; (3) what, if any, implications the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) has for the Park Service; (4) information on trends in cutbacks of visitor services at the parks; and (5) the funding levels for park operations compared with those for other federal land management agency operations.

GAO noted that: (1) while headquarters plays a key role in formulating requests for increases to the Park Service's operating budget, decisions about spending and operating priorities associated with park operating funds are delegated to the individual park managers; as a result, the individual park managers have broad discretion in deciding how to spend park operating funds; these decisions have been difficult because, while park budgets have been rising, the costs of operating the parks have also been rising in response to factors such as required pay and benefit increases; as a result, spending decisions made by park managers frequently involve trade-offs among competing demands within the parks for activities such as resource management, visitor services, or maintenance; (2) the most significant limitation associated with the Park Service's decentralized priority-setting and accountability systems is that they lack a focus on the results achieved with the funds spent; according to the park managers GAO spoke with, regional or headquarters staff rarely, if ever, discussed with them operating priorities or the results accomplished with the funds provided; key components needed to hold park managers accountable are missing; no expectations have been established for the goals that are to be achieved in the parks, and there is no process for measuring progress toward these goals; (3) GPRA offers the Park Service an opportunity to improve its system of accountability; the Park Service is currently implementing GPRA and plans on issuing its strategic plan, which will extend through fiscal year 2002, in the spring of 1997; (4) information is not available from the Park Service to determine agencywide trends in cutbacks of visitor services; each of the four parks that GAO visited has reduced its visitor services to some degree over the past 5 years; however, it is important to note that the cuts in visitor services were relatively small compared with the reductions in other park activities, such as maintenance and administration; and (5) spending on operations by the Park Service has increased in real terms by about 30 percent since 1985; (15) similarly, the operating budget of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has grown by about 28 percent over the same period; the Bureau of Land Management's and the Army Corps of Engineers' operating budgets have increased by 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively while the Forest Service's operating budget has decreased by 24 percent.

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