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Tribal Programs: Actions Needed to Improve Interior's Management of Trust Services

GAO-23-105356 Published: Apr 27, 2023. Publicly Released: Apr 27, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The federal government holds billions of dollars in trust for Tribes and individuals. In 2020, the Department of the Interior created the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration to take over managing these funds from the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.

The transfer followed some, but not all, of our leading practices for agency reforms. For example, Interior established a team to implement the transfer but didn’t develop a strategic workforce plan—which would help it ensure that the Bureau has enough staff to do the work.

Our recommendations will help Interior improve how it manages trust services.

The Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

In 2020, the Department of the Interior created the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration (BTFA) within Indian Affairs to take over financial management of trust funds and functions from the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST). Interior transferred OST employees to BTFA and is using OST's appropriations for BTFA. However, to date, congressional appropriations committees continue to make appropriations for OST rather than for BTFA.

OST was established by the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 (1994 Reform Act) to oversee and coordinate reform efforts related to Interior's trust responsibilities. Congress needs certain information from Interior to decide whether to continue OST or to approve another office, such as BTFA, to manage the trust funds. However, Interior's interpretation of the act is that providing some of this information risks triggering the act's statutory termination process for OST. Interior officials said terminating OST could leave Interior without a congressionally approved office or available appropriation to manage the trust funds, risking a breach of the federal government's duty to beneficiaries. For the purposes of this report, GAO is not taking a position on Interior's position. Unless Congress amends the statutory termination process in section 302(c), it may not receive the information it needs to make decisions regarding OST and future management of the trust funds.

Interior's transfer of trust functions from OST to BTFA generally followed some, but not all, selected leading practices for agency reforms. For example, Interior established a team responsible for implementing the transfer but did not develop a strategic workforce plan. Developing a strategic workforce plan would help Interior, going forward, to better understand the resources it needs to manage trust funds, especially as demand for beneficiary services continues to increase.

GAO's Assessment of Interior's Transfer of Trust Functions from Its Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians to the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration

Leading practice for agency reform category

Extent followed

Goals and Outcomes

Partially followed

Process for Developing Reforms

Partially followed

Implementing the Reforms

Generally followed

Strategically Managing the Federal Workforce

Did not follow

Source: GAO analysis of U.S. Department of the Interior actions. | GAO-23-105356

BTFA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) Office of Trust Services—which manages trust lands and other physical assets—use various collaborative mechanisms to manage overlaps in trust-related operations and services. Because Interior has not updated its collaboration guidance since 2002, the guidance does not reflect the bureaus' current roles and responsibilities or activities. Confusion about each bureau's roles and responsibilities can increase employees' workload and cause delays in providing services to beneficiaries, according to selected tribal and agency officials. Updating Interior's collaboration guidance to clarify current roles and responsibilities would enable BTFA and BIA to better collaborate to serve beneficiaries.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government holds more than $8 billion in trust funds for Tribes and Individual Indian Money account holders. Interior faced challenges with managing these trust funds, and the 1994 Reform Act established OST to oversee trust reform efforts. OST subsequently assumed responsibility for managing the trust funds.

The joint explanatory statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, contains a provision for GAO to examine OST. GAO was also asked to examine Interior's transfer of OST's trust functions to BTFA. This report examines the status of OST's termination, Interior's use of selected leading practices for agency reforms during the transfer, and collaboration between BTFA and BIA's Office of Trust Services.

GAO reviewed and analyzed relevant laws and agency data, compared agency actions against leading practices, and interviewed agency and selected tribal officials.

Recommendations

Congress should consider amending the statutory termination process for OST in section 302(c) of the 1994 Reform Act. GAO is also making four recommendations to Interior, including that it develop a strategic workforce plan for the staff responsible for carrying out trust functions and update agency collaboration guidance for trust operations and services. Interior generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress should consider amending section 302(c) of the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 to provide that the Department of the Interior's report on OST's reforms does not trigger the statutory termination process for OST. (Matter for Consideration 1)
Open
As of July 2023, Congress has not yet addressed this matter.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior The Assistant Secretary–Indian Affairs should review current and planned performance measures for Interior's management of trust funds and establish clearly defined performance measures for fulfilling its fiduciary trust responsibility and managing trust funds and related services to beneficiaries. (Recommendation 1)
Open
As of October 2023, Interior has identified four new categories of performance measures to fulfill the Secretary's trust principles: 1) probate processing; 2) disbursement processing; 3) timeliness of oil and gas receipting; and 4) beneficiary satisfaction. The agency has offered to walk GAO through the implementation of these performance measures, and plan to complete this task to address our recommendation by the second quarter of FY 2024.
Department of the Interior The Assistant Secretary–Indian Affairs should collect and document the data and evidence it used in deciding to transfer OST's trust functions to BTFA and provide to Congress a report containing the information and the reasoning behind the decision. (Recommendation 2)
Open
As of October 2023, Interior believes that they have provided the information requested to Congress with the data and evidence used to transfer OST's trust functions to BTFA, although this information has not been provided through means of a formal report. GAO would like to receive confirmation from Congress that they believe Interior has provided the information requested on the transfer of OST's trust functions to BTFA.
Department of the Interior The Assistant Secretary–Indian Affairs should develop a strategic workforce plan for the staff responsible for carrying out functions related to Interior's management of trust funds. (Recommendation 3)
Open
As of October 2023, BTFA continues to finalize a statement of work to hire a contractor to assist with the development of a workforce plan. BTFA anticipates awarding the contract during the second quarter of FY2024 and completing the strategic workforce plan during the second quarter of FY2025.
Department of the Interior The Assistant Secretary–Indian Affairs should routinely monitor and update BTFA and BIA's Office of Trust Services' collaboration guidance, including clarifying roles and responsibilities. (Recommendation 4)
Open
As of October 2023, BTFA has initiated action on this recommendation through a "Trust Procedures Update" initiative, which is now underway according to the agency. Once BTFA's trust procedures are fully updated and published, BTFA and BIA will work together to develop and produce an interagency handbook to update the last one published in 2003. BTFA anticipates completing the full update of the trust procedures in the fourth quarter of FY 2024 and the handbook by the fourth quarter of FY 2025.

Full Report

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Topics

BeneficiariesBest practicesFederal workforceFinancial managementFunds managementIndian affairs legislationNative AmericansNative American reservationsPerformance measurementTrust funds