Improvements Needed for Collecting Judges' Non-Case-Related Travel Information
GAO-16-70: Published: Dec 16, 2015. Publicly Released: Dec 16, 2015.
What GAO Found
From fiscal years 2003 through 2014, judges have used a separate system to report their non-case-related (NCR) travel costs paid for by government and private sources. These NCR travel costs averaged $8.8 million per year. However, while the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) tracks the costs of all official travel in its accounting systems of record, the NCR system does not collect specific information on the direct costs to the federal judiciary for judges' NCR travel. GAO found that AOUSC's data collection system for judges' NCR travel information lacked controls to standardize responses to accurately record whether NCR travel was paid for by a court or judicial agency versus other federal agencies or private entities. As a result of these limitations in the NCR travel data, GAO was not able to determine the extent to which those reported costs were paid using judiciary funds rather than other federal or private sources. According to AOUSC officials, as of November 2015, AOUSC has not decided to change the way the Judges' Non-Case-Related Travel Reporting System collects judges' NCR travel information, but is considering making improvements to the system to better collect judges' NCR travel information, including collecting the judiciary's costs of judges' NCR travel. According to the 2015 Strategic Plan for the Federal Judiciary, the judiciary must provide Congress timely and accurate information about issues affecting the administration of justice. By improving the system, AOUSC officials would be able to better collect required NCR travel information from judges and identify and report the judiciary's costs for judges' NCR travel in response to future congressional member requests.
The judiciary spent $11.5 million on 61 conferences costing over $100,000 in fiscal years 2013 and 2014. AOUSC began collecting information on judiciary conference spending across all courts and judicial agencies in fiscal year 2013 for conferences costing over $100,000. This information was used to develop publically available reports and indicated the judiciary spent $4.6 million in fiscal year 2013 and $6.9 million in fiscal year 2014 for conferences costing over $100,000.
The judiciary followed its policies for conference planning and administration. GAO sampled 8 conferences from the 61 conferences held in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 costing over $100,000 and determined the extent to which those conferences conformed to judiciary policy on conference planning and administration. GAO's results cannot be generalized to all conferences costing over $100,000 conducted by the judiciary, but do provide insight into the judiciary's compliance with its conference policies. Conference planners for the 8 conferences GAO sampled followed judiciary policy for conference planning and administration including (1) cost considerations— suggested strategies to reduce administrative, conferee travel, lodging, meeting room, and technology costs— (2) management considerations and internal controls: judiciary requirements for internal controls and management oversight of conference planning and implementation— and (3) conference site selection— a requirement to perform cost comparisons of at least two potential conference sites and document alternative sites considered and the rationale used for selecting the conference site.
Why GAO Did This Study
The federal judiciary consists of a system of courts that has the critical responsibility of ensuring the fair and swift administration of justice in the United States. Employees and judges within the judiciary travel for a variety purposes, including attending conferences for training and conducting judicial administration. For judges, travel not directly related to adjudicating cases has been termed NCR travel.
GAO was asked to review the judiciary's costs of judges' NCR travel and conferences. This report examines the following: (1) What has been the cost of judges' NCR travel from fiscal years 2003 through 2014 and to what extent does the judiciary collect information on its costs for judges' NCR travel? (2) How much did the judiciary spend on all conferences over $100,000 for its employees in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and to what extent did selected conferences conform to judiciary policy on conferences? GAO analyzed judges' NCR travel data from fiscal years 2003 through 2014, reviewed procedures for collection of NCR travel information, and interviewed judiciary officials. GAO reviewed judiciary policy for conference planning and administration, information from a non-generalizable sample of eight conferences, and interviewed judicial officials responsible for planning the conferences.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends AOUSC improve its data collection system to collect and identify judges' NCR travel costs paid by the judiciary. AOUSC agreed with our recommendation.
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Recommendation for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In December 2015, we reported on the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC's) collection of judges' non-case related (NCR) travel information. We found that AOUSC's Judges' Non-Case Related Travel Reporting System lacked controls that would allow for standardization and accuracy of the information collected on source of funds used to support judges' NCR travel. As a result, we found users did not consistently record judges' NCR travel information related to whether NCR travel was paid for by a court or judicial agency versus other federal agencies or private entities. To better collect judges' NCR travel information, we recommended that AOUSC improve its data collection system to collect and identify NCR travel costs paid by the judiciary. In response, AOUSC implemented changes to its Judges' Non-Case Related Travel Reporting System as of April 2016 which included controls to standardize data entry for users to identify source of funds used to support judges' NCR travel. Specifically, AOUSC added a feature to allow users to distinguish between costs incurred by the judiciary versus executive and legislative branch agencies and included a standardized drop-down list of possible funding sources to avoid inconsistencies and errors in data entry. These actions will help AOUSC better collect and report information to the Congress on judges' NCR travel costs. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
Recommendation: To better report information to Members of Congress on judiciary NCR travel costs, the Director of AOUSC should improve its data collection system to collect and identify NCR travel costs paid by the judiciary.
Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts