Environmental Information:

EPA Is Taking Steps to Improve Information Management, but Challenges Remain

RCED-99-261: Published: Sep 17, 1999. Publicly Released: Sep 17, 1999.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) information management systems, focusing on: (1) recent initiatives designed to help EPA improve the accuracy, completeness, and compatibility of its data; (2) the impact of data gaps and inconsistencies on EPA's ability to evaluate and report on the results of its programs under the Government Performance and Results Act; and (3) the major management challenges facing EPA's new central information office.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA has several data improvement initiatives to obtain the environmental information needed to effectively set priorities, assess progress in achieving goals and objectives, and report on accomplishments in a credible way; (2) these initiatives are specifically aimed at identifying critical gaps in EPA's environmental data, developing data standards to enable separately designed databases to operate compatibly with one another, and identifying and correcting inaccuracies; (3) while these initiatives are steps in the right direction, they are limited in scope and do not provide the overall strategy needed to ensure the completeness, compatibility, and accuracy of EPA's environmental data; (4) EPA's ability to evaluate the outcomes of its programs in terms of changes in the environment is limited by gaps and inconsistencies in the quality of its data; (5) of the 357 measures of performance that EPA has developed for use during fiscal year 2000 to report its accomplishments under the Results Act, the agency reports that only 71 will reflect environmental outcomes; the other measures will reflect program activities, such as the number of actions taken to enforce environmental laws; (6) EPA program managers acknowledge that additional measures of environmental outcomes are needed and that the agency's forthcoming information plan will encourage such measures in all program offices and establish milestones for creating them; (7) to meet these milestones, EPA's program offices will have to overcome: (a) difficulties in establishing cause-and-effect relationships between program activities and environmental outcomes; (b) a lack of reliable baseline data against which to measure progress and a more generalized lack of reliable data about the environment; and (c) constraints on the resources for gathering and analyzing the data; (8) creating a successful central information office from disparate parts of EPA will help the agency to address obstacles to obtaining the data it needs to manage for results; (9) however, establishing a successful office will require appropriate resources and the commitment of senior management; and (10) one of the office's most pressing challenges will be to develop a plan that identifies clear priorities for the office and the resources it will need to successfully lead the agency's efforts to make significant improvements in information management.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA completed a strategic information plan containing the key elements GAO recommended. It also developed key data standards, coordinated its data standards efforts, established a mandatory quality system for environmental data, and developed formal agency-wide procedures to provide for easier identification, tracking, and resolution of errors found in the national environmental data systems.

    Recommendation: To help EPA obtain the data it needs to effectively set priorities, assess progress in achieving goals and objectives, and report on accomplishments in a credible way, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Program Manager of the new information office to develop an action plan that details the key steps that the agency needs to take to ensure that EPA's environmental and regulatory data are sufficiently complete, compatible, and accurate to meet its needs. This action plan should include the office's strategy, milestones, and resource needs to: (1) fill key gaps that have been identified in the agency's information on environmental conditions; (2) identify and develop all needed data standards and implement them in all major databases; (3) coordinate EPA's data standardization efforts with the states, federal agencies, and other organizations that maintain major environmental databases; (4) improve the collection of accurate data by implementing its quality assurance program throughout the agency as well as in the states; and (5) identify procedures needed so that data errors detected in one EPA information system can be corrected agencywide.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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