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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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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In April 2019, Indian Affairs provided documentation that it had taken corrective actions to address weaknesses with its safety program. Its actions included, among others, developing and implementing a corrective action plan, issuing statements from agency leadership on safety as a core value, updating the agency's service level agreement between BIA and BIE on school safety, and quarterly tracking of regional offices' corrective actions on safety. Agency officials consulted with Interior's Office of Occupational Safety and Health Office in developing and implementing its corrective action plan. In March 2019, this office closed its outstanding findings on Indian Affairs' safety program.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that BIA regional leadership, in collaboration with Indian Affairs' safety office, would develop and publish a safety training plan for all Indian Affairs employees with responsibilities for safety inspections. Additionally, they would develop and implement a policy to ensure that first-line supervisors monitor and report on whether employees have completed the training requirements. In April 2019, Indian Affairs provided documentation that it had developed and implemented a training plan to assess all employees' safety training needs. The new training management system allows supervisors to track employees' completion of required safety training courses. By May 2020, Indian Affairs had developed a process to generate reports on personnel safety training compliance. Interior provided documentation in January and February 2021 that Indian Affairs identified BIE employees who had not completed its required safety training and notified BIE managers about the need for these employees to complete the training.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In March 2019, BIE-which became responsible for inspecting all schools in FY2019-provided documentation that its FY2019 appraisal plans for all safety personnel responsible for inspecting BIE schools have been updated with Indian Affairs' required inspection performance standards. These standards include benchmarks for developing complete and accurate inspection reports and providing them to schools within required timeframes.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that BIA will amend its 2017 performance standards for safety inspectors to comply with the standards in Indian Affairs' recently updated safety inspection and fire system guidelines. Additionally, Indian Affairs reported that its safety office, BIA, and BIE will develop a comprehensive performance standard for inspection reports and a formal and uniform process for monitoring the quality of safety inspection reports. Indian Affairs reported a target date of June 30, 2020 for implementing this recommendation. In December 2017, Indian Affairs provided documentation that it had established a process to routinely monitor the quality of inspection reports but did not provide documentation it had developed a performance standards on inspection report quality. In August 2018, Indian Affairs provided documentation that it had developed and required all relevant regional safety personnel appraisal plans to include a performance standard on safety inspection report quality based on the results of safety program evaluations and random report quality evaluations, among other results.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that it had implemented updated safety guidelines in May 2017, which require safety inspectors to complete and submit a safety inspection certification and a transmittal memorandum to schools. Indian Affairs reported that all safety inspectors had received training on the guidelines and that its safety office had established a procedure for monitoring the timeliness of inspection reports sent to schools. In December 2017, Indian Affairs provided documentation that it had developed a process to routinely monitor the timeliness of reports against Indian Affairs' required 30-day timeframe. In September 2018, Indian Affairs provided documentation of the finalized policy establishing the agency's new process for monitoring the timeliness of safety inspection reports to BIE schools. This process allows the agency to regularly track when safety inspection reports are completed and determine which inspection reports are sent to schools after the agency's required 30-day timeframe.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Affairs safety office will take steps to ensure that all safety personnel performance plans include its standard on inspection report timeliness. In April 2019, we verified that Indian Affairs is tracking the timeliness of annual safety inspection reports to BIE schools and that relevant inspectors have report timeliness incorporated into their performance appraisal plan. As of June 2020, BIE is using its performance management system to evaluate and provide performance feedback to its safety personnel on the timeliness of their safety inspection reports to schools. In particular, BIE provided its four inspectors mid-year performance review feedback, including preliminary ratings, on the number of reports they had provided schools within the agency's required 30-day timeframe. Most of the inspectors' reports were sent to schools on time. Of the remaining reports, none exceeded the agency's timeframe by more than a few days. BIE noted some late reports in Spring 2020 resulted from the need for safety officers to assist schools with emergency closure of their facilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the timeliness of those reports.

Full Report

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Topics

InspectionInternal controlsNative American educationSafety and health programsPerformance appraisalsPerformance measurementPerformance managementProgram evaluationProgram managementSafetySchoolsSchool safetyCompliance oversightSchool management and organizationStandards