Tribal Funding: Actions Needed to Improve Information on Federal Funds That Benefit Native Americans

GAO-22-104602 Published: May 19, 2022. Publicly Released: May 19, 2022.
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Fast Facts

Federal agencies are required by law to provide a variety of programs and services to tribes and their members.

The Office of Management and Budget publishes an annual report (called a "crosscut") on federal funding for programs that benefit Native Americans, but tribal stakeholders have expressed concerns about the report's transparency. We found that agency data shown in the report lacks details about what it represents, making it challenging for some people to understand and use the data. Also, few agencies have formal processes for incorporating tribal input and needs into budgets.

Our 7 recommendations address these issues.

A laptop showing the White House's Tribal Consultation webpage

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provides information to tribal stakeholders and others on agency-reported federal funding for programs that benefit Native Americans (see figure). This information is known as the Native American Crosscut.

Proposed Funding for Programs That Benefit Native Americans, Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022 President's Budget

Proposed Funding for Programs That Benefit Native Americans, Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022 President's Budget

GAO found that five selected agencies—the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), the Interior, and Transportation (DOT)—interpret OMB's guidance differently when identifying programs and information on federal funding to include in the crosscut. They also take different approaches to reporting data to OMB for a variety of reasons. The crosscut lacks detailed information about what the agency-reported data represent. Tribal stakeholders stated that this lack of detail makes it challenging for them to leverage the data for decision-making. By improving guidance to collect more detailed information from agencies in its request for crosscut data, OMB could help to provide crosscut users with greater clarity about the data being reported and better meet their needs.

Two of the five agencies have formal processes for incorporating tribal input during budget formulation, and they develop budget information that reflects tribal needs to varying degrees. Specifically, HHS and Interior have processes for tribal leaders to provide input on initial budget submissions to OMB. Also, HHS's Indian Health Service has a tribal budget work group that develops information on tribal needs—including unmet needs—that the agency provides to OMB. However, three agencies do not have formal processes for incorporating tribal input into initial budget submissions and do not develop budget information that reflects tribal needs. Establishing formal processes would enable agencies to obtain tribal input and develop budget information that reflects tribal needs, including unmet needs. This would better ensure that decision makers and Congress have information to (1) understand resources needed to achieve program objectives and (2) assess the federal government's progress meeting its unique responsibilities to tribes and their members, in accordance with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommendations.

Why GAO Did This Study

Federal law requires federal agencies to provide a variety of services to tribes and their members. GAO refers to the need for these services—as defined by tribes, tribal members, and other tribal organizations that administer federal programs or grants for tribes and their members—collectively as tribal needs. In 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that the federal government does not keep complete records of federal funding for programs serving tribes. OMB publishes a crosscut on federal funding for programs that benefit Native Americans, but tribal stakeholders have expressed concerns about its transparency.

This report examines (1) information the crosscut provides and reported challenges with using it and (2) the extent to which federal agencies obtain tribal input and reflect tribal needs during budget formulation. GAO reviewed relevant policies and procedures at OMB and five agencies that represent about 90 percent of proposed funding amounts reported in the crosscut. GAO also interviewed agency officials and selected tribal stakeholders—including a federal-tribal budget working group, federal-tribal advisory bodies, and tribal and other organizations—for their perspectives.

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Recommendations

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that OMB improve its crosscut guidance and that certain agencies develop a formal process to consult with tribes when formulating budget requests. OMB, Education, and DOT agreed or generally agreed with the recommendations. USDA neither agreed nor disagreed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Management and Budget The Director of OMB should issue clear guidance as part of the annual budget data request for the Native American Crosscut that directs agencies to provide detailed information about how they collected data to report and selected programs to include. Such information could include the type of funding being reported (such as budget authority or estimated spending); how that funding is distributed (such as competitive discretionary grants, formula grants, or pass-through funding); and how agencies determine which programs to include in the crosscut (such as programs that are specific to tribes and their members versus programs that serve a broader audience). (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of Management and Budget The Director of OMB should publish in the Native American Crosscut a statement of its purpose and detailed information that it receives from agencies in response to its budget data request—including any information about agencies' methods for collecting and reporting funding data and selecting programs to include—and inform intended users of the crosscut upon its publication. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of Management and Budget The Director of OMB should establish a formal process to regularly solicit and assess feedback about the Native American Crosscut from tribal stakeholders and relevant federal agencies, and to incorporate such feedback into guidance as applicable, to ensure that the information presented in the crosscut meets users' needs. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs develops a formal process to ensure meaningful and timely input from tribal officials when formulating budget requests and program reauthorization proposals for programs serving tribes and their members. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should ensure that the department develops a formal process to ensure meaningful and timely input from tribal officials when formulating budget requests for programs serving tribes and their members. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Office of Tribal Relations and the Office of Budget and Program Analysis develop a formal process to ensure meaningful and timely input from tribal officials when formulating budget requests and program reauthorization proposals for programs serving tribes and their members. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of Management and Budget The Director of OMB should update OMB's annual budget guidance to direct federal agencies to assess, in consultation with tribes, tribal needs for federal programs serving tribes and their members, and submit this information as part of their publicly available budget documents. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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