National Mediation Board:

Strengthening Planning and Controls Could Better Facilitate Rail and Air Labor Relations

GAO-14-5: Published: Dec 3, 2013. Publicly Released: Dec 3, 2013.

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Contact:

Revae E. Moran
(202) 512-7215
moranr@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The National Mediation Board (NMB) recently updated its strategic plan but is not meeting some federal strategic planning and performance measurement requirements. NMB missed deadlines for updating its strategic plan and lacks performance measures to assess its progress in meeting its goals, even though an agency's strategic plan should form the basis for everything an agency does.

NMB also lacks some controls in key management areas that could risk its resources and its success:

Financial accountability: NMB contracts for annual financial statement audits and internal control reviews. However, it lacks a formal process for addressing identified deficiencies, a key internal control.

Information technology: NMB recently transitioned to new information technology systems but is missing key management and security controls, including an information security program that fully implements federal requirements.

Human capital: NMB has taken steps to improve its human capital program but improvements are still needed. Although all NMB senior managers are eligible for retirement, NMB has not engaged in formal workforce planning to identify gaps in staff skills, and strategies, such as training, to address them.

Procurement: NMB has established some key procurement policies and controls but weaknesses remain. For example, in a recent purchase of tablet computers for some staff, NMB did not follow its own procedures to assess the need for the devices or solicit competition.

Other management issues: NMB does not have an Inspector General (IG), and oversight by other federal agencies is limited. NMB also has a significant number of pending rail arbitration cases, and it lacks complete data on the types of cases filed to help it address the backlog and the costs.

NMB has adapted to challenges presented by large union elections resulting from airline mergers and has implemented improvements such as online voting. In 2010, NMB changed its rules for determining a majority in union elections. While this process caused disagreement among some stakeholders, NMB data suggest that the percentage of elections in which a union was certified has, thus far, remained relatively constant in the years before and after the rule change.

Why GAO Did This Study

A small federal agency, NMB facilitates labor relations in two key transportation sectors--railroads and airlines-- through mediation and arbitration of labor disputes and overseeing union elections. Established under the Railway Labor Act, NMB's primary responsibility is to prevent work stoppages in these critical industries. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 required GAO to evaluate NMB programs and activities. GAO examined NMB's (1) strategic planning and performance measurement practices; (2) controls for key management areas; and (3) challenges, if any, in overseeing elections. GAO assessed NMB's management practices using internal control standards and other GAO criteria; interviewed NMB officials, current and former board members, and key stakeholders from rail and air labor and management groups; and reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and NMB policies.

What GAO Recommends

Congress should consider authorizing an appropriate federal agency's IG to provide oversight of NMB. NMB should implement a formal strategic planning process and develop performance goals and measures to meet federal requirements, develop a process to address audit findings, implement key components of an information security and privacy program, and engage in strategic workforce planning. NMB should also collect and analyze data on the types of rail grievances filed to help improve efficiency in its arbitration process. In commenting on a draft of this report, NMB said it would address our recommendations and described actions it plans to take.

For more information, contact Revae Moran at (202) 512-7215, or moranr@gao.gov.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress considered this matter. The Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing in April 2014 to (1) review the processes and mechanisms by which small agencies and other federal entities without statutory inspectors general receive oversight, and (2) examine potential legislative actions to improve the oversight of small agencies. In advance of the hearing, the committee circulated draft legislation that would, among other things, assign the Inspector General of the National Labor Relations Board the responsibility of providing oversight of the National Mediation Board.

    Matter: To provide for independent audit and investigative oversight of NMB, Congress should consider authorizing an appropriate federal agency's Office of Inspector General to provide such oversight.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2018, we found that NMB developed a formalized process to define responsibilities, assign key roles, and delegate authority to staff in its strategic plan. The process involved obtaining internal and external stakeholder input. In addition, NMB has implemented an annual planning process for reviewing and updating its strategic plan.

    Recommendation: In order to improve NMB's planning and make the most effective use of its limited resources, the Chairman of the National Mediation Board should develop a formal strategic planning process to fully implement key required elements of strategic planning, including a formal process to obtain congressional and stakeholder input.

    Agency Affected: National Mediation Board

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2018, we assessed the extent to which NMB has developed performance goals to meet all guidelines for federal performance management and determined that NMB's performance goals either met or substantially met federal guidelines (see GAO-18-301). For example, to facilitate the settlement of disputes, NMB's arbitration department is to acknowledge all external requests within 1 business day and the director is to make case assignments within 2 business days of deadline for requests.

    Recommendation: In order to improve NMB's planning and make the most effective use of its limited resources, the Chairman of the National Mediation Board should develop, and include in its performance plan, performance goals and measures that contain required elements to demonstrate results.

    Agency Affected: National Mediation Board

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2018, we found - and reported in GAO-18-301 - that NMB's audit standard operating procedures now outline the agency process for promptly resolving financial and non-financial audit findings, and those procedures are consistent with federal internal control standards.

    Recommendation: In order to improve NMB's planning and make the most effective use of its limited resources, the Chairman of the National Mediation Board should develop and implement a formal mechanism to ensure the prompt resolution of findings and recommendations by independent auditors, including clearly assigning responsibility for this follow-up to agency management.

    Agency Affected: National Mediation Board

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2018, we determined that NMB had made progress in following information security practices, but had not fully implemented this recommendation. We reported in GAO-18-301 that NMB was partially following, meaning some actions had been taken but additional steps remained, all eight of the key information security practices delineated by GAO in 2013. For example, NMB documented a system security plan for its enterprise network, security awareness training guidance, and a continuity of operations policy, among other things. However, NMB had not developed agency-wide policies and procedures for the oversight of third-party providers that support the operations and assets of the agency, and NMB officials acknowledged that this oversight may need improvement. Officials also said the agency did not assess third-party providers' implementation of security requirements to help ensure the effectiveness of information security controls over information resources that support federal operations and assets. NMB stated that it will continue to improve its cyber-security practices and has added extending coverage to third-party provider applications to its security plan. NMB also stated that it would re-write the NMB Enterprise Cloud Information System Security Plan to address required updates with a planned completion in April 2018.

    Recommendation: In order to improve NMB's planning and make the most effective use of its limited resources, the Chairman of the National Mediation Board should develop and fully implement key components of an information security program in accordance with the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002.

    Agency Affected: National Mediation Board

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2018, we found that NMB had made progress in following information privacy practices, but still had not fully implemented this recommendation. Specifically, NMB was following two of the four key privacy practices. For example, NMB designated a privacy officer and finalized its privacy policy containing procedures for protecting sensitive information, including personally identifiable information. However, NMB was only minimally following the other two key privacy practices. First, NMB had not conducted privacy impact assessments. Among other things, such assessments identify privacy risks and the appropriate controls to address such risks for its systems or those of third-party providers containing the agency's personally identifiable information. According to the Chief Information Officer, the agency's third-party providers perform their own privacy impact assessments. However, NMB did not provide any documentation on how it oversaw third-party provider assessments. Second, NMB had not issued system of records notices to provide transparency about its possible use of personally identifiable information. NMB stated that it will perform privacy impact assessments as part of the new Information System Security Plan by April 2018.

    Recommendation: In order to improve NMB's planning and make the most effective use of its limited resources, the Chairman of the National Mediation Board should establish a privacy program that includes conducting privacy impact assessments and issuing system of record notices for systems that contain personally identifiable information.

    Agency Affected: National Mediation Board

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2018, we determined and reported in GAO-18-301 that NMB had implemented this recommendation. NMB officials stated that during the prior fiscal year, the agency updated its strategic workforce plan and sent the plan to stakeholders for comments. NMB also took steps to formally include internal and external stakeholders in its workforce planning process. In addition, its strategic workforce plan contains strategies to evaluate agency workforce planning and other human capital efforts. For example, NMB's strategic workforce plan contains human capital goals, such as an annual review of its training policy; individual development plans for its staff; a recruitment plan; and a succession plan. In addition, NMB developed a workforce policy that includes a performance management process to monitor and evaluate its staff that is consistent with federal internal control standards.

    Recommendation: In order to improve NMB's planning and make the most effective use of its limited resources, the Chairman of the National Mediation Board should develop a strategic workforce plan that (1) involves input from top management, employees, and other stakeholders; (2) identifies critical skills and competencies needed by NMB; (3) identifies strategies, such as training, to address any gaps; and (4) provides for cost-effective evaluations of these strategic workforce planning efforts. This plan should also address succession for the significant proportion of NMB staff and senior managers who are eligible to retire in the next few years.

    Agency Affected: National Mediation Board

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2018, we reported that NMB's Director of the Office of Arbitration Services said that the agency had developed an Arbitrator Work Space (AWS) case management system, which assists staff in monitoring, recording, and tracking the activities of rail arbitration cases. However, the official said that NMB was unable to analyze the data in AWS because one of the three adjustment boards (the National Rail Adjustment Board) did not provide the subject codes it needed to understand the nature of the grievances. NMB officials told us that they requested that the National Rail Adjustment Board add subject codes to all of its open rail arbitration cases by March 1, 2018, and thereafter include these codes when submitting a notice of intent for arbitration. In August 2018, NMB reported that the National Rail Adjustment Board had added a subject code for all of its open rail arbitration cases. In addition, NMB announced that, beginning in September 2018, it would administratively close all cases that were filed 3 years prior but never put on the waiting list. The Board informed the parties that it is likely to remove more cases in the future. According to NMB, the Board is studying the impact of these actions on arbitration caseloads and considering additional actions in the future.

    Recommendation: In order to improve NMB's planning and make the most effective use of its limited resources and to better inform its decisions about managing the rail grievance arbitration process, including addressing the backlog of cases, NMB should collect and analyze data on the types of grievances filed, and their disposition. NMB should use these data to improve the efficiency of the arbitration process and consider, as part of this effort, whether to establish fees for arbitration services. If NMB determines that the establishment of fees would improve the efficiency of the arbitration process, it should impose such fees or seek legislative authority to do so, as necessary.

    Agency Affected: National Mediation Board

 

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