Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS), an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has procedures and activities that are consistent with four leading practices and partially consistent with six leading practices in managing two loan programs and one grant program aimed at funding broadband infrastructure projects in rural communities.

  • Consistent with Leading Practices: With regard to reviewing applications, RUS has procedures for training reviewers, guarding against conflicts of interest, and conducting multiple levels of review. For external training and external communication, RUS holds workshops and seminars to inform rural communities and applicants about its programs. RUS's website contains program information, including eligibility criteria, time frames, and frequently asked questions. Applicants can also seek assistance from the RUS general field representative (GFR) assigned to their area. Program recipients whom GAO interviewed often spoke positively of the help provided by GFRs. As to coordination mechanisms, RUS has worked with other federal agencies on rural broadband-deployment efforts, including having a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Communications Commission.

  • Partially Consistent with Leading Practices: While USDA has a high-level goal and a performance metric for measuring the benefits to rural communities of the broadband loans and grants, RUS has not developed specific program-level goals or performance measures for its individual programs. Without specific measureable goals for each loan and grant program, RUS will have difficulty determining how well the programs are performing. Regarding risk assessment, RUS conducts a variety of risk assessment activities at the loan and grant application and project level, but has not conducted a risk assessment at the program level. A higher-level, programmatic risk assessment would provide a holistic look at the programs' core processes and internal controls. For broadband programs, another leading practice is establishing mapping systems that can provide program data and reveal areas that lack service. RUS has mapping tools and systems in place, but does not have complete mapping information. RUS has efforts under way to improve its mapping data going forward. These efforts should increase RUS's understanding of broadband coverage and help RUS begin to identify possible unserved areas for outreach. For project monitoring, RUS currently oversees loan and grant recipients' projects through GFR site visits, progress reports, and audits. However, RUS does not evaluate its grant projects post-completion and is therefore missing information that could be used to improve the selection of grant recipients or the results of grant awards. RUS has established an organizational structure that supports internal communication, but does not have a centralized system to monitor loan and grant data. RUS officials said USDA is working toward such a system, but they did not have established deliverables or time frames. RUS generally has external written documentation for recipients, but internal written documentation is often outdated, affecting RUS's ability to share knowledge among its staff and retain institutional knowledge.

Why GAO Did This Study

RUS provides loans and grants to help finance the construction of broadband infrastructure in rural America. GAO was asked to review RUS's management of its programs to fund broadband deployment, including consistency with leading practices for federal funding, program management, and broadband deployment.

This report examines the extent to which RUS's procedures and activities are consistent with leading practices and how, if at all, its management practices could be improved. GAO synthesized, from federal guidance and relevant literature, a set of 10 leading practices that would be appropriate for the management of broadband loan and grant programs. GAO validated its set of practices with states that have programs similar to the RUS programs. GAO then reviewed RUS documentation and interviewed RUS officials and six program recipients, selected for having geographically dispersed projects currently under construction. Based on this information, GAO determined whether RUS's procedures and activities were consistent, partially consistent, or not consistent with each leading practice.


Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO recommends that RUS develop program performance goals and measures, conduct program risk assessments, evaluate completed grant projects, establish a timeline for implementing a centralized internal data system, and update written policies and procedures for RUS staff. USDA agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture To improve RUS's management of the Infrastructure Program, Broadband Program, and Community Connect by more closely following leading practices for broadband loan- and grant-program management, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct RUS to develop and document clear goals and performance measures linked to those goals, for each program.
Closed - Implemented
To improve broadband access in rural America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has three programs that provide loans and grants to finance the construction of broadband infrastructure: the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, the Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, and the Community Connect Grant Program. In 2017, GAO reported that RUS's procedures and activities are partially consistent with the leading practice of program performance measurement. Specifically, USDA had identified a goal and performance measure at a high level (e.g., USDA's goal is "to assist rural communities to create prosperity so they are self-sustaining, repopulating, and economically thriving."). However, RUS had not established a process to ensure that program goals were being identified, tracked, and fulfilled; had not developed performance measures linked to goals; and did not evaluate or document the results of program measurement activities. RUS officials told GAO that they believe their goals for each of the three programs were to ensure that facilities are constructed properly and that the service is actually provided. However, these goals were not documented, and there were no specific performance measures that link to these goals. Without specific, documented goals for each loan and grant program it was difficult to determine in an objective, quantifiable way if these programs were fulfilling USDA's strategic goal of assisting rural communities. Therefore, GAO recommended that USDA direct RUS to develop and document clear goals and performance measures linked to those goals for these three broadband programs. In 2018, GAO confirmed that RUS has developed and documented clear goals and performance measures linked to those goals for the three broadband loan and grant programs. RUS (1) worked with a consultant to comprehensively understand the current RUS telecommunication programs landscape, identify gaps, and develop solutions; (2) established new goals for each of the two loan programs and the grant program; and (3) developed metrics for tracking progress toward and achievement of the programs' goals. As a result, RUS should be in a better position to determine how well the loan and grant programs are performing as well as manage them in a proactive, results-oriented manner.
Department of Agriculture To improve RUS's management of the Infrastructure Program, Broadband Program, and Community Connect by more closely following leading practices for broadband loan- and grant-program management, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct RUS to establish and implement procedures to conduct a risk assessment of each program, including an examination of risk at both the programmatic and portfolio level for each program.
Closed - Implemented
To improve broadband access in rural America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has three programs that provide loans and grants to finance the construction of broadband infrastructure: the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, the Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, and the Community Connect Grant Program. In 2017, GAO reported that RUS's procedures and activities are partially consistent with the leading practice of risk assessment. Specifically, RUS conducts a variety of risk assessment activities at the application and the individual project level, as well as having procedures to guard against fraud. However, RUS had not established procedures to conduct risk assessment activities at the program level. A higher-level programmatic risk assessment would provide a holistic look at the programs' core processes and practices and assess internal controls over each program. The programmatic risk assessment could include an examination of risks at the portfolio level for both the loan and grant portfolios. In late 2016, USDA hired a Chief Risk Officer for the Rural Development mission level. While this, along with RUS's efforts to address risks in applications and funded projects were positive steps, they were not fully consistent with the level of risk assessment that is intended under the Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government (known as the "Green Book"). Therefore, GAO recommended that RUS establish and implement procedures to conduct a risk assessment of each program, including an examination of risk at both the programmatic and portfolio level for each program. In 2019, GAO confirmed that RUS has established and implemented procedures to conduct a risk assessment of each program. Specifically, RUS developed a risk taxonomy for the rural broadband deployment programs and criteria for assessing the risks. As a result, RUS should be in a better position to assess the risks of its programs-both at the programmatic and portfolio level-to determine whether modifications to business practices and internal controls are necessary to cost-effectively address programmatic and portfolio-level risks.
Department of Agriculture To improve RUS's management of the Infrastructure Program, Broadband Program, and Community Connect by more closely following leading practices for broadband loan- and grant-program management, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct RUS to establish and implement procedures to conduct periodic evaluations of completed grant projects to determine the outcomes associated with these projects, and analyze the information gained to assess if any programmatic changes are needed to improve the Community Connect program.
Closed - Implemented
To improve broadband access in rural America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has three programs that provide loans and grants to finance the construction of broadband infrastructure: the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, the Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, and the Community Connect Grant Program. (A fourth RUS broadband program that provides grants and loans, ReConnect, was established in 2018, and thus was not part of this GAO review.) In 2017, GAO found that RUS's management of these programs was consistent with some leading practices and partially consistent with others, such as procedures and activities for project monitoring. Specifically, RUS had in place a number of monitoring and oversight activities of program recipients, but was not evaluating Community Connect Grant Program project results. According to federal standards for internal control, effective project monitoring incorporates a process that helps ensure that project goals are identified, tracked, and met. Further, project activities are to be evaluated and reported on a regular basis to help determine whether changes are needed to better meet project goals and detect fraud and abuse. According to RUS officials, staffing resource-constraints prevented them from evaluating the results of grant-funded projects. By not periodically evaluating grant project results, RUS's ability to measure the outcomes and success of its grant program was limited. Specifically, without analysis of post-award project successes or failures, Community Connect Grant Program managers were missing information that could be used to determine if programmatic changes might improve the selection of grant recipients or the results of grant awards. Therefore, GAO recommended that USDA direct RUS to establish and implement procedures to conduct periodic evaluations of completed grant projects to determine the outcomes associated with these projects, and analyze the information gained to assess if any programmatic changes are needed to improve the Community Connect program. In July 2021, GAO confirmed that RUS has issued a policy memo to its staff that implemented a review process for analyzing outcomes of Community Connect Grant projects. USDA's Office of the Chief Risk Officer for Rural Development completed a first cycle of grant reviews, and subsequent reviews will occur every 5 years, with the next one scheduled for 2023. The new policy for reviewing Community Connect grants should improve RUS' ability to ensure its programs are fulfilling USDA's strategic goal of assisting rural communities and manage the programs in a proactive, results-oriented manner.
Department of Agriculture To improve RUS's management of the Infrastructure Program, Broadband Program, and Community Connect by more closely following leading practices for broadband loan- and grant-program management, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct RUS to establish a timeline for implementing a centralized internal system for staff to obtain relevant and timely program data for use in managing and monitoring loans and grant awards.
Open
As of December 2020, USDA is developing a file repository to house all Telecom Programs' files. However, USDA officials informed us that, due to the COVID-19 situation, it has been difficult to put a time frame on when this repository will be completed. USDA did not provide an updated date when asked in August 2021. We will leave this recommendation open until USDA can do more on this effort.
Department of Agriculture To improve RUS's management of the Infrastructure Program, Broadband Program, and Community Connect by more closely following leading practices for broadband loan- and grant-program management, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct RUS to develop, update, and maintain complete written policies and procedures for RUS's programs as a way to retain and communicate organizational knowledge internally among agency staff. RUS should determine the critical documentation that should be created or updated, including considering documentation such as loan-application review guidance and employee manuals for each of the three programs.
Closed - Implemented
To improve broadband access in rural America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has three programs that provide loans and grants to finance the construction of broadband infrastructure: the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, the Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, and the Community Connect Grant Program. (A fourth RUS broadband program that provides grants and loans, ReConnect, was established in 2018, and thus was not part of this GAO review.) In 2017, GAO reported that RUS's policies and procedures were partially consistent with the leading practice of the written documentation leading practice. According to federal standards for internal control, an effective management framework for grants and loans includes developing and maintaining written documentation as a means to obtain and retain organizational knowledge. Specifically, RUS had updated application guides to assist applicants in the application process. For example, for the Community Connect program, RUS created an application guide for fiscal year 2016, and both the Broadband and Infrastructure Programs had updated information in their application guides. Further, according to RUS officials, RUS documented its award decisions. However, GAO found that, since RUS's reorganization in 2014, the agency had not fully updated written documentation for loan and grant management policies and procedures to communicate knowledge among its staff. For example, RUS did not have any formalized staff instructions for processing the Broadband Program's loan applications. As one loan recipient told us, GAO also found that new employees could have a difficult time ensuring that they were passing correct information to program applicants. And as long-time grant and loan program officials retired or get reassigned, the lack of written policies and procedures could negatively affect RUS's ability to efficiently carry out its tasks and fulfill the goals of the three programs. Therefore, GAO recommended that USDA direct RUS to develop, update, and maintain complete written policies and procedures for RUS's programs as a way to retain and communicate organizational knowledge internally among agency staff. In 2021, GAO confirmed that RUS has developed a Community Connect program Staff Instruction guide and corresponding templates to ensure RUS now has the critical documentation such as grant-application review guidance for its employees. RUS is currently developing similar Staff Instruction guide and templates for the Infrastructure and Broadband loan programs. GAO believes that the completed guide and templates for the Community Connect grant program, along with the similar documents being developed for the two loan programs, should improve RUS' ability to retain and communicate critical program information among its staff.

Full Report

GAO Contacts