COVID-19: The Coast Guard Has Addressed Challenges, but Could Improve Telework Documentation and Personnel Data

GAO-21-539 Published: Jul 16, 2021. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The Coast Guard took steps to protect its staff from COVID-19, including expanding telework. As staff continue using this flexibility, the Coast Guard needs to ensure staff are following telework policies—now, and going forward.

Further, Coast Guard staff self-report their telework use and health statuses. The Coast requires this data to be audited weekly for accuracy, but it can't confirm these audits are happening. As a result, the Coast Guard may be using inaccurate data to plan technology investments, determine staff's mission readiness, and more.

We recommended ways for the Coast Guard to improve its telework and personnel data.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel help an individual disembark from a cruise ship tender during the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Coast Guard helping an individual disembark from a cruise ship tender

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The U.S. Coast Guard took steps to safeguard its personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic by updating its policies and guidance, expanding telework, and administering COVID-19 vaccines, among other efforts. For example, the Coast Guard formed a COVID-19 Crisis Action Team comprising targeted working groups to address COVID-19-related issues and develop new policies and guidance. Further, from December 2020 through April 2021, the Coast Guard administered vaccines to 35,439 (about 64 percent) of its personnel.

Selected U.S. Coast Guard COVID-19 Crisis Action Team Working Groups

Selected U.S. Coast Guard COVID-19 Crisis Action Team Working Groups

The Coast Guard also took actions to address a variety of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, officials from all nine sectors (i.e., operational field units) we interviewed identified challenges with information technology system functionality when the Coast Guard expanded telework in March 2020. This included insufficient network bandwidth and a lack of laptop computers. To address these challenges, the Coast Guard increased network bandwidth to allow more simultaneous users and provided additional laptops to field offices. In addition, the Coast Guard faced other challenges during the pandemic, including ensuring personnel continued to receive necessary training and on-the-job experience.

GAO found that the Coast Guard lacks controls over telework documentation and its personnel data are not reliable. First, the Coast Guard expanded its telework program during the pandemic, but lacks controls to ensure that teleworking personnel have valid and current telework agreements in place. Officials told us that high levels of participation in its telework program may continue following the pandemic. Thus, ensuring that all personnel who telework have valid and current telework agreements in place will provide the Coast Guard with the information needed to make decisions that require telework data, such as for space planning or technology investments. Second, the Coast Guard modified its personnel system to allow personnel to self-report and update their COVID-19 and telework statuses. GAO analyzed these data from April 2020 through April 2021 and found they were not reliable due to missing data and concerns about accuracy. In particular, Coast Guard officials could not provide assurance or evidence that weekly audits purposefully designed to verify the accuracy and completeness of these data were being conducted. Without such assurance, the Coast Guard may be relying on inaccurate and incomplete information when making decisions that rely on these data, such as for assessing its operational readiness.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Coast Guard is a multi-mission maritime military service responsible for maritime safety, security, and environmental protection, among other things. During the pandemic, the Coast Guard has faced challenges in balancing the need to safeguard its personnel with its responsibility to continue missions and operations.

In response to a CARES Act mandate and congressional requests, GAO reviewed the Coast Guard's efforts to respond to the pandemic. This report examines (1) the Coast Guard's actions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure for its personnel; (2) challenges the Coast Guard faced in operating in a pandemic environment and how it addressed them; and (3) the extent to which the Coast Guard has collected and maintained valid and current telework documentation, as well as accurate and complete COVID-19 data on its personnel.

GAO reviewed Coast Guard COVID-19 policies and guidance, interviewed officials from headquarters and a non-probability sample of nine Coast Guard sectors, and analyzed data on the status of Coast Guard personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends the Coast Guard ensure that (1) personnel have valid telework agreements in place, (2) these agreements are reviewed at least annually, and (3) weekly audits are conducted to verify the status of personnel. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should develop and implement additional internal controls to ensure that all personnel participating in the Coast Guard's telework program have valid telework agreements in place. (Recommendation 1)
Open – Partially Addressed
The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation. In early January 2022, the Coast Guard informed GAO that it remains on-track to issue reminders to all Coast Guard personnel in the second quarter of FY 2022 (by the end of March 2022) to help ensure all teleworkers have a valid telework agreement in place. The Coast Guard also noted that it plans to issue these reminders annually. In April 2022, the Coast Guard Office of Civilian Human Resources sent an email to civilian personnel reminding them of their telework requirements. To further consider the recommendation for potential closure, the Coast Guard will need to provide documentation (1) of a notification sent to military personnel and (2) that notifications to civilian and military personnel will be sent annually.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should develop and implement additional internal controls to ensure that supervisors review telework agreements at least annually and document these reviews. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation. In early January 2022, the Coast Guard informed GAO that it remains on-track to issue reminders to all Coast Guard personnel in the second quarter of FY 2022 (by the end of March 2022) to help ensure that supervisors conduct annual reviews of telework agreements and report satisfactory completion. The Coast Guard also noted that it plans to issue these reminders annually. In April 2022, The Coast Guard Office of Civilian Human Resources sent an email to civilian personnel reminding them of their telework requirements, including that they are to be reviewed annually and that supervisors must retain current copies of the telework agreements. To further consider the recommendation for potential closure, the Coast Guard will need to provide documentation on how the Coast Guard ensures that supervisors are reviewing telework agreements for military and civilian personnel at least annually, and that the supervisors are documenting the reviews.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that required weekly audits are being conducted to verify the accuracy and completeness of data on the COVID-19 and telework statuses of Coast Guard personnel. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation. As of July 2021, the Coast Guard continued to use data on the COVID-19 statuses of its personnel on a daily basis. Further, as of early January 2022, the Coast Guard noted that it is developing a process to audit the COVID-19 and telework statuses of personnel. The Coast Guard plans to complete this process by August 31, 2022. To fully address this recommendation, the Coast Guard will need to ensure that required weekly audits are being conducted to verify the accuracy and completeness of these data.

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