Merchant mariners are civilian sailors that the Coast Guard certifies to work on U.S. commercial or private cargo ships. These mariners can be called to help the military in national emergencies and wars.
This Q&A report examines the Coast Guard's mariner credentialing process, covering:
Numbers and types of applications received
Processing times and factors affecting them
Recent and planned improvements to make the process faster
How the Coast Guard measures program performance
We found the Coast Guard's processing time measurement doesn't reflect the actual time mariners waited for applications to process, so we recommended improving it.
What GAO Found
The Coast Guard merchant mariner credentialing process involves multiple levels of review to ensure the mariner meets the professional qualifications for the position. A mariner may request a credential for the first time (original), renewal, duplicate, raise of grade (i.e., change in position), or new endorsement (i.e., proof of qualification for a position). For applications received from January 2018 through June 2022, the Coast Guard processed about 75 percent of credential applications in 60 days or fewer. GAO found that the Coast Guard's processing times varied due to the complexity or completeness of the application, the number of applications received, and the availability of the Coast Guard's human capital and information technology resources. For example, it generally took more time to process original credentials than other types. Also, the Coast Guard required additional information from 57 percent of applications it received, which added to the overall processing time.
Over the past several years, the Coast Guard has taken steps to improve the credentialing process by, for example, streamlining part of its review process. The Coast Guard is also taking steps to modernize its information technology to help improve its overall timeliness in processing credentials and responding to mariners.
The Coast Guard's key performance measures for the credentialing process which include the monthly volume of applications in progress, the monthly ratio of applications finished divided by number received, and a subset of the processing time help partially support one of its Marine Safety strategic goals of improving service to mariners, the maritime community, and the public. However, the Coast Guard does not measure the performance of its overall processing time, which reflects the time from application submission to the time the Coast Guard issues the credential. Instead, the Coast Guard measures the time spent actively processing applications and does not count the time the National Maritime Center may need to wait for information from applicants, including time allowed for applicants to complete testing requirements. Adding a measure to track performance of its overall credentialing processing time could help ensure the Coast Guard remains responsive to mariners' needs.
Why GAO Did This Study
Merchant mariners play a vital role supporting the U.S. maritime commerce industry which generates nearly $5.4 trillion in economic activity. To serve on certain merchant vessels, mariners must possess a merchant mariner credential. The credential indicates the holder does not present a threat to national security and has met the qualifications necessary for the mariner's position. The U.S. Coast Guard, within the Department of Homeland Security, has responsibility for issuing credentials to qualified mariners. However, over the past several years, questions have been raised about the time it takes and the technology used to process credential applications.
The James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act, 2023, includes a provision for us to evaluate how the National Maritime Center processes merchant mariner credentials. This report addresses the Coast Guard's merchant mariner credentialing process, the volume and timeliness of processing applications, and how the Coast Guard measures the performance of its process.
To conduct this work, GAO reviewed Coast Guard documentation on the credentialing process, interviewed officials, and conducted a site visit in April 2023 of the credentialing center. Additionally, GAO analyzed record-level data from Coast Guard's credentialing database for the 333,785 applications the Coast Guard received from January 1, 2018, through December 31, 2022. GAO also analyzed monthly Coast Guard performance data from this same period and compared them against Coast Guard strategic goals.
GAO is recommending that the Coast Guard (1) establish a performance measure for assessing the overall processing time, and (2) use it to regularly assess and report on the Coast Guard's credentialing efforts. The Department of Homeland Security agreed.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|United States Coast Guard
|The Commandant of the Coast Guard should establish a performance measure for assessing the overall processing time to better reflect the needs of merchant mariner credential applicants and the maritime community. (Recommendation 1)
|United States Coast Guard
|The Commandant of the Coast Guard should, after establishing an overall processing time performance measure, use it to regularly assess and report on the performance of the merchant mariner credentialing program. (Recommendation 2)