Coast Guard: Actions Needed to Improve National Vessel Documentation Center Operations

GAO-21-100 Published: Dec 16, 2020. Publicly Released: Dec 16, 2020.
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Fast Facts

The Coast Guard requires owners of certain commercial ships and other vessels to obtain vessel documentation—a form of registration. Owners of recreational vessels may also seek documentation to help them secure financing and other advantages.

The Coast Guard's documentation center generally processes commercial vessels on time but continues to suffer from backlogs for recreational ones. The Coast Guard has switched some staff from commercial to recreational reviews and taken other actions. We recommended it review whether the user fees it charges are sufficient to cover the cost of this service and more.

The Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center Processed Mostly Recreational Certificates of Documentation from FY 2015-2019

Pie chart with largest piece (70%) being Recreational

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Highlights

What GAO Found

In recent years, the Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC) met workload demands for timely processing of commercial vessel documentation, but not for recreational vessel documentation. From January 2015 through September 2019, its recreational documentation processing time averaged 57 days—about 4 times longer than its 15-day informal target (see fig.).

NVDC officials attributed the current backlogs to performance issues with the Coast Guard's information technology system for managing vessel documentation. For example, officials stated that there were periods where system performance issues left only about 11 percent of NVDC staff able to access the system, limiting their ability to meet their workload demands.

The Coast Guard has generally not conducted operational analyses of its vessel documentation system since 2012. Such analyses are required annually for information technology systems to help ensure they perform as intended. By developing and implementing policies and procedures to ensure the Coast Guard conducts required operational analyses for the system, it will better ensure that potential system performance issues are being addressed on a timely basis.

Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC) Processing Time for Issuing Recreational Vessel Documentation, January 2015 through September 2019

Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC) Processing Time for Issuing Recreational Vessel Documentation, January 2015 through September 2019

Note: Recreational reissue—which refers to applications from recreational vessel owners to change owners or the vessel's hailing port—is the most common type of recreational vessel documentation. The gaps in the figure during 2018 and 2019 are due to the system used to generate the data being unavailable for those points in time.

The Coast Guard has not measured the NVDC's effectiveness in processing vessel documentation. The service requires its units to report their performance to leadership. However, the NVDC uses an informal target to measure staff timeliness in processing documentation. It has not established formal targets to measure its overall performance. Establishing formal organizational performance targets for its vessel documentation activities—such as quantifiable goals for timeliness and accuracy—would provide the NVDC with a clear baseline by which to measure its effectiveness.

Why GAO Did This Study

In fiscal year 2019, the NVDC documented about 230,000 vessels for commercial and recreational purposes in U.S. waters. The Coast Guard requires owners of certain-sized commercial vessels to obtain vessel documentation—a form of vessel registration—through the NVDC. Vessel documentation is optional for owners of recreational vessels of 5 or more net tons (generally longer than 26 feet), and many do so to secure a mortgage for financing. In 2017, GAO reported that the NVDC faced backlogs in processing recreational vessel documentation.

The Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018 includes a provision for GAO to review NVDC's operations. This report examines, among other objectives, the extent that the Coast Guard (1) met its NVDC workload demands and (2) measured NVDC's effectiveness in processing vessel documentation.

GAO analyzed Coast Guard vessel documentation processing data for fiscal years 2015 through 2019 and information on its system used to process vessel documentation. GAO also interviewed cognizant Coast Guard officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making seven recommendations to the Coast Guard, including that it develop and implement policies and procedures for conducting operational analyses for its vessel documentation system, and establish formal organizational performance targets for NVDC's vessel documentation activities. The Coast Guard concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Deputy Commandant for Operations develops and implements policies and procedures for conducting operational analyses for VDS and its replacement. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In December 2020, we reported that Coast Guard officials attributed backlogs in processing vessel documentation to performance issues with its information technology system for managing vessel documentation-the Vessel Documentation System (VDS). We also reported that the Coast Guard had generally not conducted required, routine operational analyses of VDS since it began using the system in 2012. Coast Guard officials told us that they did not have policies and procedures in place to ensure they conduct routine operational analyses of VDS, as required. Federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, are to conduct an operational analysis of every information technology system yearly or on an as-needed basis to demonstrate the system meets the need of the agency. We recommended that the Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Deputy Commandant for Operations develops and implements policies and procedures for conducting operational analyses for VDS and its replacement. The Coast Guard concurred with the recommendation. In September 2021, the Coast Guard responded to our recommendation by developing policies and procedures for conducting operational analyses of operational information systems, including VDS and its replacement. In March 2022, the Coast Guard conducted an operational analysis for VDS. As a result, the Coast Guard will better address potential system performance issues on a timely basis.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Deputy Commandant for Operations documents decisions in future years in which it elects not to conduct operational analyses for VDS and its replacement. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In November 2020, DHS stated that, in fiscal year 2021, the Office of C5I Capabilities will update its policies and procedures to include documenting decisions to exclude an information technology system from an operational analysis. The Office of C5I Capabilities will document such decisions in the final report on the findings of the operational analysis. DHS estimated that it will complete these actions by March 31, 2021. Although the Coast Guard conducted an operational analysis for VDS in March 2021, the Coast Guard's new instruction for operational analyses, signed in September 2021, does not contain language that requiring the Coast Guard to document its decisions in future years in which it elects not to conduct operational analyses for VDS and its replacement. In March 2022, Coast Guard officials told us they will update the instruction, but did not provide an estimated completion date.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy establishes formal organizational performance targets for NVDC's vessel documentation activities, such as timeliness and accuracy. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In November 2020, DHS stated that the Coast Guard's NVDC will establish formal organizational performance targets for its vessel documentation activities, including timelines and accuracy of delivered products and services, for approval by the Director of Inspections and Compliance. DHS estimated that it would complete these actions by June 30, 2021. In September 2021, Coast Guard officials told us the NVDC had established formal organizational performance targets for the timeliness and accuracy of its vessel documentation activities in March 2021, but did not provide evidence that the NVDC had done so. In March 2022, Coast Guard officials provided evidence that the NVDC had established targets for timeliness in March 2021, but did not provide evidence that it had established targets for accuracy. They did not provide an estimated completion date.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy develops and implements a formal mechanism to regularly solicit and review customer service feedback from NVDC customers. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In November 2020, DHS stated that the NVDC will develop and implement surveys to regularly solicit customer service feedback from its customers. DHS stated that the Coast Guard's Office of Inspections and Compliance will ensure that the NVDC is reviewing and responding to the feedback. It stated that survey results will be made available to NVDC customers and estimated completing these actions by June 30, 2021. In September 2021, the Coast Guard developed and implemented a survey to regularly solicit customer service feedback from NVDC customers, but did not provide evidence that the Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy regularly reviews customer service feedback and ensures appropriate follow-on action is taken. In March 2022, Coast Guard officials told us that the NVDC regularly reviews customer service feedback and ensures appropriate follow-on action is taken, but did not provide evidence that they do so. They told us the estimated completion date is June 1, 2022.
United States Coast Guard
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Commandant of the Coast Guard should direct the Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy to ensure that NVDC conducts a full cost study of NVDC's commercial and recreational user fees. (Recommendation 5)
Open
In November 2020, DHS stated that the NVDC will conduct a full cost study of its commercial and recreational user fees, with oversight provided as needed by the Director of Operations Resource Management for the Deputy Commandant for Operations. DHS stated that the NVDC will do so after the Coast Guard develops a new information technology system to allow the NVDC to accurately assess the actual costs of providing services to the public, including new information technology support costs. In December 2021, Coast Guard officials told us that they adjusted the delivery date for the new information technology system from March 31, 2022 to August 31, 2022. As a result, they adjusted the estimated completion date for completing the cost study from December 31, 2022 to June 30, 2023. In February 2022, Coast Guard officials told us they remain on track to meet the estimated completion date.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Assistant Commandant for Resources, in coordination with the Deputy Commandant for Operations, establishes a mechanism to track NVDC implementation of recommendations from its user fee reviews. (Recommendation 6)
Open
In November 2020, DHS stated that the Coast Guard's Office of Resource Management, under the Assistant Commandant for Resources, will develop procedures to track the status of user fee review recommendations in coordination with applicable program offices. DHS estimated it will do so by September 30, 2021. In September 2021, the Coast Guard stated that it was on track to meet the estimated completion date. In January 2022, the Coast Guard stated that it is developing an intranet website to track the implementation of recommendations from its user fee reviews. The Coast Guard estimated that it will complete the website by the end of January 2022. In February 2022, the Coast Guard provided an updated estimated completion date of the end of February 2022. As of March 15, 2022, the Coast Guard has not completed the website or provided an updated estimated completion date.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Assistant Commandant for Resources, in coordination with the Deputy Commandant for Operations, documents the decision if NVDC elects not to implement a recommendation from its user fee reviews. (Recommendation 7)
Open
In November 2020, DHS stated that the Office of Resource Management will develop procedures for documenting any decision not to implement a recommendation from user fee reviews in coordination with applicable program offices. DHS estimated that it will do so by September 30, 2021. In September 2021, the Coast Guard stated that it was on track to meet the estimated completion date. In January 2022, the Coast Guard stated that it is developing an intranet website with work flows to document the decision if it elects not to implement a recommendation from its user fee reviews. The Coast Guard estimated that it will complete the website by the end of January 2022. In February 2022, the Coast Guard provided an updated estimated completion date of the end of February 2022. As of March 15, 2022, the Coast Guard has not completed the website or provided an updated estimated completion date.

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