Defense Logistics: Greater Awareness of Recommendations and Improvements in Data Quality Needed to Resolve Container-Management Challenges

GAO-15-114 Published: Nov 21, 2014. Publicly Released: Nov 21, 2014.
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What GAO Found

Since the early years of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Department of Defense (DOD) efforts to improve container management in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility have included either updating existing or developing new container-management policy and guidance. However, the department cannot provide reasonable assurance that all recommendations addressing container management in the CENTCOM area of responsibility have been incorporated in DOD's policy or guidance, as appropriate. DOD officials incorporated some recommendations made by DOD audit agencies and other organizations aimed at improving container management into policy and guidance. For example, in August 2012 the commanders of CENTCOM and U.S. Transportation Command issued a joint memorandum outlining leadership's responsibility for container management in the CENTCOM area of responsibility that was a direct result of a 2012 Joint Logistics Board report that recommended corrective actions to enhance senior leaders' understanding of container management. However, DOD does not have a comprehensive list of the corrective actions that have been recommended over time. Without such a list, DOD cannot reasonably ensure that all of the recommendations have been incorporated into policy and guidance as appropriate. For example, of the 95 corrective actions that GAO identified from reports by DOD audit agencies and other organizations issued from 2003 through 2013, DOD officials could not provide information on steps taken to address 40 of the corrective actions.

Since 2012, DOD has taken steps to manage and reduce shipping container detention fees incurred due to the untimely return of commercial carrier-owned shipping containers in Afghanistan, but its ability to manage and reduce these fees is limited by inaccurate and incomplete data. In August 2012, DOD established the requirement that within 15 days of a shipping container's arrival: (1) receipt of the container was to be recorded by the unit in-theater, (2) the container was to be unloaded, and (3) the responsible carrier was to be notified that its container was available for pickup. DOD also developed a set of tracking metrics to monitor progress in meeting this requirement. However, incomplete and inaccurate data about the location and number of containers accruing detention fees hindered DOD's ability to manage and reduce detention fees for containers in Afghanistan. For example, GAO analysis of DOD's container-management system data and carrier delivery data for each month in 2013 showed that DOD had not recorded in the container-management system about 16 percent of the carrier-owned containers delivered and received in Afghanistan. DOD has identified factors, or procedural weaknesses, that may contribute to incomplete and inaccurate data; however, it has not assessed the extent to which these weaknesses have contributed to data inaccuracies, determined the root causes of these weaknesses, or developed a corrective-action plan for correcting them. Without an assessment of the root causes and a corrective-action plan, it will be difficult for DOD to have complete and accurate data, which could limit its ability to manage and reduce detention fees for containers in Afghanistan and in future contingency operations.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD uses DOD or commercial carrier shipping containers to transport supplies worldwide. Container management has been a long-standing challenge. DOD has paid detention fees of about $823 million from 2003 through 2012 for retaining containers longer than allowed, primarily due to operations within CENTCOM, including Afghanistan, where fees continue to accrue. GAO was asked to review DOD's efforts to address container-management challenges and the accumulation of detention fees.

This report assesses the extent to which (1) DOD policy and guidance incorporate recommendations addressing container-management challenges in CENTCOM's area of responsibility, and (2) DOD has managed and reduced detention fees for containers in Afghanistan since 2012. GAO reviewed prior audit reports to identify container-management recommendations; analyzed data such as container type and ownership from 2010 through 2013; and interviewed DOD officials.

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GAO recommends that DOD (1) develop a list of recommendations and incorporate them into policy and guidance and (2) identify root causes for procedural weaknesses that contribute to inaccurate, incomplete container data and develop and implement a corrective plan. DOD concurred with the first recommendation and partially concurred with the second because it partially disagreed to whom GAO directed the recommendation. GAO concurred and modified the recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To help DOD to improve the overall management of shipping containers for current and future contingencies, and to more fully incorporate recommendations into its policy and guidance and to ensure that improvements to container management will be sustained for future contingencies, the Secretary of Defense should develop a comprehensive list of recommendations made by DOD agencies and other organizations, and make the information available for policymakers to incorporate, as appropriate, into new or existing container-management policy and guidance. DOD could use our work as a starting point for this assessment.
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with our recommendation and requested that GAO provide a listing of the recommendations we identified during this review to use as a starting point for its assessment. After we provided the listing of 95 recommendations, DOD added an additional 7 recommendations DOD identified through an independent assessment from the Institute for Defense Analysis. DOD then reviewed each of the recommendations for Departmental-level policy and guidance implications. As a result, after we completed our review in 2014, the Department has been making improvements in container management. For example, the department revised DOD Instruction 4500.57 "Transportation and Traffic Management" in March 2017 and included specific container management responsibilities for combatant commanders, provisions for use of intermodal containers during contingency operations, container management definitions, and policy on use of the Joint Container Management System. Also, DOD updated the Universal Services Contract 8 in January 2016 with provisions such as lower container buyout costs that are more favorable to the government in reducing costs than the prior contract. Finally, according to Joint Staff officials, DOD directs each Geographic Command to capture a container management plan within their Theater Distribution Plans.
Department of Defense To help DOD to improve the overall management of shipping containers for current and future contingencies, and to help ensure DOD's container-management system has more complete and accurate data, and DOD is better positioned to assess progress in managing containers to reduce detention fees, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander CENTCOM to identify the root cause or causes for the procedural weaknesses in the handling of containers and the extent to which they contribute to the incomplete and inaccurate recording of container-management data in theater.
Closed – Implemented
In its response to our recommendation, DOD stated that CENTCOM is responsible for theater container management and control in its area of responsibility and that CENTCOM would coordinate with U.S. Transportation Command to the extent that specific theater actions affect overall global container management. Subsequent to the issuance of USCENTCOM identified several root causes. Specifically, CENTCOM determined that 1) Senior leadership did not have continuous visibility/oversight on container management within the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility (AOR); 2) The Multiple Container System was prone to data entry error and therefore, container information was inaccurate or not uniformly reported; 3) Container management policies and procedures, although in place, were not being consistently followed; and 4) Organizations or units assigned the responsibilities of Container Control Officer without adequately training the personnel assigned. CENTCOM also noted that frequent personnel turnover aggravated continuity. CENTCOM's actions are responsive to our recommendation to identify the root causes for the procedural weaknesses in the handling of containers.
Department of Defense To help DOD to improve the overall management of shipping containers for current and future contingencies, and to help ensure DOD's container-management system has more complete and accurate data, and DOD is better positioned to assess progress in managing containers to reduce detention fees, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander CENTCOM to develop and implement a corrective action plan with effective solutions for the root causes identified that provide for completion of corrective measures.
Closed – Implemented
After our report recommendations were made, CENTCOM developed and implemented corrective actions addressing the root causes identified in response to the second recommendation in our report. Specifically, CENTCOM acknowledged the deficiencies in its container management program and implemented several initiatives to improve visibility/management of the program. The initiatives include: (1) issuance of a CENTCOM Container Management Letter of Instruction, dated October 1, 2015, which delineates container management policy and procedures throughout CENTCOM's AOR. (2) The CENTCOM Directorate of Logistics and Engineering chairs a monthly Container Management Review Board teleconference to identify and address container management issues and concerns discovered over the past month, with a focus on collaboration between the key participants within the CENTCOM AOR, and the Director of Logistics and Engineering is updated weekly on container management. (3) The Container Management Executive Board (CMEB) meets weekly to monitor compliance, direction, and coordination through weekly metrics reporting and analysis, and also takes appropriate measures to ensure effective and efficient implementation of container management policies and procedures. (4) The Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC) is establishing the Joint Container Management system, which is to provide the capability for a single-user interface for all container management systems to mitigate the risk for data inaccuracy. (5) Personnel assigned as Container Control Officers are being trained by their commands and their Country Container Authority, which are fully engaged in training their Container Control Officers on the new system. In taking these actions, CENTCOM has addressed our recommendation to develop and implement corrective actions and solutions to address the root causes identified in our report's second recommendation.

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