Indian Affairs:

Further Actions Needed to Improve Oversight and Accountability for School Safety Inspections

GAO-17-421: Published: May 24, 2017. Publicly Released: May 24, 2017.

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What GAO Found

The Department of the Interior (Interior) and its Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (Indian Affairs) have not taken actions to address identified weaknesses in the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) safety program, despite internal evaluations that have consistently found it to be failing. Specifically, Interior's internal evaluations conducted since 2011 identified major deficiencies in all areas of BIA's safety program, including safety management and safety inspections, which include Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools. However, GAO found that Interior and Indian Affairs have not taken actions to address these evaluation findings, such as developing and implementing a corrective action plan. Federal standards for internal control state that federal managers should address weaknesses by ensuring that corrective actions are promptly planned and taken. Unless steps are taken to address previously identified safety program weaknesses, the safety and health of students and staff at BIE schools may be at risk.

No Indian Affairs office routinely monitors the quality or timeliness of inspection reports, and BIA employees were not held accountable for late reports despite a new employee performance standard on timely report submission. While BIA completed safety inspections at all BIE schools in fiscal year 2016, GAO found that 28 of 50 inspection reports reviewed were incomplete, inaccurate, or unclear. For example, GAO identified reports in which inspectors did not inspect buildings or incorrectly gave school officials a year to fix broken fire alarms instead of the required 24 hours. GAO also found BIA inspectors submitted nearly a third of all reports after Indian Affairs' required 30 days, but no employee with safety program responsibilities was rated “minimally successful” or “unsatisfactory” as required by BIA's performance standards. Federal standards for internal control state that monitoring should be ongoing and assess effectiveness and that managers should hold employees accountable for performance. Until Indian Affairs monitors the quality and timeliness of school inspection reports and uses timeliness information to better manage safety employees' performance, the agency cannot ensure that BIE school officials receive the information they need to provide safe and healthy environments for students and staff.

Number of School Safety Inspection Reports Submitted to Indian Affairs' Safety Office within 30 Days of the Inspection, Fiscal Year 2016

Number of School Safety Inspection Reports Submitted to Indian Affairs' Safety Office within 30 Days of the Inspection, Fiscal Year 2016

Note: There are 185 BIE schools located at 178 locations across the country. Some schools are co-located on the same campus, and Indian Affairs considers them a single location for inspection purposes.

Why GAO Did This Study

Indian Affairs is responsible for ensuring safe and healthy learning environments for about 41,000 Indian students at 185 BIE schools. In March 2016, GAO identified numerous weaknesses with BIA's school inspections. GAO was asked to review Interior's oversight of BIA's safety program and inspections of BIE schools.

Among other issues, GAO examined the extent to which Interior has taken actions to address weaknesses with BIA's safety program, and the extent to which Indian Affairs monitors BIE school safety inspection reports and uses timeliness information to evaluate employee performance. GAO reviewed Interior's internal evaluations; a nongeneralizable sample of 50 randomly selected fiscal year 2016 BIE school inspection reports covering the nine BIA regions with inspection responsibilities for schools; BIA regional documentation of employee appraisals; and performance management practices in four BIA regions selected for geographic diversity and a range of safety inspection results.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations to Interior, including to take steps to address previously identified weaknesses in BIA's safety program; establish processes to monitor the quality and timeliness of BIE school inspection reports; and use timeliness information to better assess employee performance. Interior agreed with all six recommendations and noted several actions it plans to take to address them.

For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. The agency stated that the Designated Agency Safety and Health Official (DASHO) is working with the Indian Affairs' safety office and BIA regional leadership to discuss the current state of BIA's safety program and develop a corrective action plan to address identified safety program weaknesses.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to develop and take corrective actions, in consultation with Interior's Designated Agency Safety and Health Official, to address BIA safety program weaknesses identified in prior Interior evaluations.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. Interior indicated that Indian Affairs is developing a safety training plan, which will establish program responsibilities and compliance requirements for safety training across BIA, among other areas. Interior also noted that line offices will track the implementation of the training plan and individuals' compliance with training requirements.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to assign responsibility to a specific office or official to develop and implement a plan to assess employees' safety training needs and monitor employees' compliance with Indian Affairs' safety training requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. Interior commented that the appraisal plans of BIA regional directors had been updated to include BIA's new performance standards on inspections, which we noted in our report. The agency also stated that Indian Affairs' work in addressing this recommendation was primarily completed. However, Interior did not provide evidence that the appraisal plans of all BIA staff with safety program responsibilities included all of the bureau's new performance standards on safety inspections. We continue to believe that it is important that BIA's employee performance standards on inspections are consistently incorporated in all BIA employee appraisal plans.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to ensure that BIA's employee performance standards on inspections are consistently incorporated into the appraisal plans of all BIA personnel with safety program responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. The agency noted that Indian Affairs is developing written policies and procedures for safety inspections at BIE schools, which it says will address issues with report clarity and accuracy, among other areas. However, Interior did not provide us with information about whether it will establish a performance standard for report quality and a process for monitoring inspection quality, which are the two key actions we recommended. We maintain that these steps are needed to ensure that BIE schools receive thorough and accurate safety inspection reports.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to develop a performance standard on inspection report quality and establish a process to routinely monitor the quality of inspection reports. Monitoring could include, but not be limited to, the following areas: accuracy of risk levels and abatement timeframes assigned to deficiencies and clarity of language to describe safety hazards and recommended corrections.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. Interior stated that Indian Affairs will require inspectors to certify and report the dates on which inspectors send reports to schools. The agency also noted that Indian Affairs' safety office will monitor the timeliness of inspection reports sent to schools and report the results of its monitoring to Indian Affairs' senior leadership.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to require safety inspectors to document when inspection reports are sent to schools and establish a process to routinely monitor the timeliness of reports against Indian Affairs' required 30-day timeframe.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. Interior stated that supervisors will ensure that responsible employees are held accountable for complying with its performance standards on safety inspections. We continue to believe it is important that Indian Affairs use information from monitoring inspection report timeliness to assess employee performance.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to use information gathered from monitoring the timeliness of school safety inspection reports to assess the performance of employees with safety program responsibilities and hold them accountable.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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