Forest Service:

A Framework for Improving Accountability

RCED/AIMD-00-2: Published: Oct 13, 1999. Publicly Released: Oct 26, 1999.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Forest Service's progress in improving its accounting and financial reporting, focusing on Forest Service's efforts to: (1) achieve financial accountability; (2) become more accountable for its performance; and (3) better align its budget with its strategic goals and objectives.

GAO noted that: (1) since the first audit of the Forest Service's financial statements, the Department of Agriculture's Inspector General has found serious accounting and financial reporting weaknesses; (2) the Forest Service has had significant problems implementing its new accounting system, which the agency has stated is key to correcting its financial management deficiencies and to attaining accountability over billions of dollars in taxpayer funds and investments; (3) the independence afforded the agency's autonomous field structure has hampered efforts to correct accounting and financial reporting weaknesses; (4) the Forest Service has completed several actions and begun others that represent important steps toward achieving financial accountability; (5) nevertheless, major barriers remain, and the Forest Service may take several years to achieve financial accountability; (6) the Forest Service has begun to implement a results-based performance accountability system; (7) however, the agency has not been able to develop: (a) quantifiable objectives and long-term and annual measures of its progress in achieving its general goals; or (b) strategies to achieve its goals and objectives; (8) as a result: (a) the national forests cannot blend agencywide objectives and strategies with local priorities in revising their plans; (b) funds are being allocated to regions and forests on the basis of old criteria that often are not linked to the agency's new goals and objectives; and (c) line managers cannot be held accountable for achieving the goals and objectives; (9) the Forest Service's budget structure is directly linked to the agency's resource-specific programs, which, in turn, are intended to fund program-specific projects and activities in the field; (10) however, the link between the agency's budget structure and land management activities has weakened as the field offices have addressed issues or problems that are not aligned with the agency's resource-specific programs; (11) there is often no clear link between the budget structure and the way work activities are structured in the field; (12) GAO believes that the Forest Service's budget structure should be revised to better link it to the agency's strategic goals and objectives; and (13) GAO also believes that any future revisions should coincide with actions required to correct known accounting and financial reporting deficiencies as well as problems with performance-related data, measurement, and reporting.

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