Influenza Pandemic:

Increased Agency Accountability Could Help Protect Federal Employees Serving the Public in the Event of a Pandemic

GAO-09-404: Published: Jun 12, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 16, 2009.

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Stanley J. Czerwinski
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Protecting federal workers essential to ensuring the continuity of the country's critical operations will involve new challenges in the event of a pandemic influenza outbreak. This requested report discusses (1) the extent to which agencies have made pandemic plans to protect workers who cannot work remotely and are not first responders, (2) the pandemic plans selected agencies have for certain occupations performing essential functions other than first response, and (3) the opportunities to improve agencies' workforce pandemic plans. GAO surveyed pandemic coordinators from 24 agencies and selected three case study occupations for review: federal correctional workers, staff disbursing Treasury checks, and air traffic controllers.

The Homeland Security Council's (HSC) 2006 National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan required federal agencies to develop operational pandemic plans, and responses from the pandemic coordinators of the 24 agencies GAO surveyed indicate that a wide range of pandemic planning activities are under way. However, the responses also showed that several agencies had yet to identify essential functions during a pandemic that cannot be performed remotely. In addition, although many of the agencies' pandemic plans rely on telework to carry out their functions, several agencies reported testing their information technology capability to little or no extent. GAO's three case study agencies also showed differences in the degree to which their individual facilities had operational pandemic plans. The Bureau of Prisons' correctional workers had only recently been required to develop pandemic plans for their correctional facilities. Nevertheless, the Bureau of Prisons has considerable experience limiting the spread of infectious disease within its correctional facilities and had also made arrangements for antiviral medications for a portion of its workers and inmates. The Department of the Treasury's Financial Management Service, which has production staff involved in disbursing federal payments such as Social Security checks, had pandemic plans for its four regional centers and had stockpiled personal protective equipment such as respirators, gloves, and hand sanitizers at the centers. Air traffic control management facilities, where air traffic controllers work, had not yet developed facility pandemic plans or incorporated pandemic plans into their all-hazards contingency plans. The Federal Aviation Administration had recently completed a study to determine the feasibility of the use of respirators by air traffic controllers and concluded that their long-term use during a pandemic appears to be impractical. There is no mechanism in place to monitor and report on agencies' workforce pandemic plans. Under the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was required to monitor and report on the readiness of agencies to continue operations while protecting their employees during an influenza pandemic. The HSC, however, informed DHS in late 2006 or early 2007 that no specific reports on this were required to be submitted. Rather, the HSC requested that agencies certify to the council that they were addressing in their plans the applicable elements of a pandemic checklist in 2006 and again in 2008. This process did not include any assessment or reporting on the status of agency plans. Given agencies' uneven progress in developing their pandemic plans, monitoring and reporting would enhance agencies' accountability to protect their employees in the event of a pandemic. GAO has previously reported on the importance of internal control monitoring to assess the quality of performance over time. Without appropriately designed monitoring and reporting, the President and the Congress cannot fully assess the ability of the agencies to continue their operations while protecting their federal employees in the event of a pandemic.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has not required DHS to report to it on agencies progress; as such, this recommendation is being closed as not implemented. In 2011, GAO was requested to review this subject again. The report (GAO-12-748) included a recommendation to DHS.

    Matter: To help support its oversight responsibilities, the Congress may wish to consider requiring Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to report to it on agencies' progress in developing and implementing their pandemic plans, including any key challenges and gaps in the plans.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The National Security Staff (NSS) advised that they had determined that they will not provide responsive information regarding our recommendation. We have closed this recommendation as unimplemented but note that in 2013 DHS in 2013 revised its guidance to agencies and now addresses this issue in its biennial assessment of agencies' continuity capabilities.

    Recommendation: To ensure agencies' greater accountability in developing operational plans that will protect their workforce in the event of a pandemic, the Homeland Security Council (HSC) should request that the Secretary of Homeland Security monitor and report to the Executive Office of the President on the readiness of agencies to continue their operations while protecting their workers during an influenza pandemic. The reporting should include an assessment of the agencies' progress in developing their plans, including any key challenges and gaps in the plans. The request should also establish a specific time frame for reporting on these efforts.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Homeland Security Council


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