Briefing with Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga on Ongoing Diplomatic Efforts to Address the Root Causes of Irregular Migration from Central America

Ricardo Zuniga, Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle

Via Teleconference

MS PORTER: Hi, good evening. This is Department – State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter. Thank you so much for joining the call this evening. Special Envoy Ricardo Zuniga is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service. He has decades of experience with the State Department and is now serving as a special envoy for the Northern Triangle. Special Envoy Zuniga is working in coordination with Vice President Harris to address the root causes of irregular migration and leading the U.S. diplomatic efforts with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico on these issues. He’s joining us here today on the record to answer all of your questions. And as a reminder, today’s briefing is embargoed until the conclusion of the briefing.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to you, Special Envoy.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. So I have a brief opening statement, and then I look forward to your questions. So over the past few weeks since mid-March when I joined, I have traveled to Central America and had a series of meetings with leaders from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras about working together to alleviate the conditions that are driving mass irregular migration to Mexico and the United States. While we agreed that we have a lot of work ahead of us, I believe we already have a good foundation with partners in all the countries in Central America and in Mexico.

To be clear, when I’m talking about leaders in this context, it doesn’t only include government leaders. Also, very importantly, it refers broadly to civil society, from social issue groups to members of the private sector, members of the media. We’ve discussed important issues at hand, including fundamental freedoms and dealing with the acute crises that are driving so much of the migration today. We discussed improving the current conditions and the cooperation needed to reduce irregular migration, but also, importantly, we really talked about what we needed to do together to establish the favorable conditions for economic and social growth to address one of those main drivers of irregular migration from the region.

So what we’re really focused on is trying to create enabling conditions that are going to allow societies to thrive. Very clearly, these large flows of irregular migrants aren’t just something that happens in one year and now there have been – it has been happening, and happening cyclically year after year over the last decade. We’ve seen that the challenges in Central America really do present challenges in the United States. When something goes wrong in Central America, we feel it in the United States. We are very closely connected as societies. The truth is we’re very closely linked.

And so our commitment has to be not just to deal with the acute drivers of migration, but really dealing with the short-, medium-, and long-term problems if we want to see systemic and sustainable change, which, really, that’s our objective. And thanks to the leadership of the Vice President, we’ve organized ourselves as a government to make cooperation stronger and more of a reality, a tangible reality for governments in the region. We’re also addressing structural problems that have affected so many lives in Central America, whether they regard insecurity or lack of opportunities or corruption.

Our goal is to work with the people of Central America to create safe, prosperous, democratic societies where citizens can build their own lives with dignity. At the center of our efforts, again, is this fight against corruption and impunity and fostering the conditions that provide for growth, especially in the vital small- and medium-sized business sector which drives – in which so many people are employed in the region.

With that, I look forward to your questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, again —

MS PORTER: All right. Let’s go to the line of Christina Ruffini, please.

QUESTION: Good evening.

OPERATOR: And Christina, your line is open.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Ricardo, thanks for taking the time. Just to start out, I know you are the special envoy to the Northern Triangle, but I’m wondering if the State Department is considering doing away with that term. We’ve heard from the countries themselves they’re pushing back against this saying they each have their own identities. In your opinion, is the term helpful for making policy to the region or has it – has it outlived its usefulness?

MR ZUNIGA: So this is something that we certainly have gotten that feedback. Governments are dealt with as a – just as a matter of substance, we do deal with them individually. Each of the countries have particular characteristics and particular challenges that they’re dealing with. I think it’s appropriate to focus on these three countries in northern Central America as a – as a – and in particular from the U.S. perspective, because that’s the source of irregular migration that is – that is reaching the Southwest border in large numbers. But we do understand the context is Mexico and all of Central America, and so we try looking at the – at the issue that way.

I certainly am sensitive to concerns about countries feeling like they are lumped together. That’s not how we’re approaching this. There are some common challenges and there are also challenges that have to be dealt with at a regional level, but we do in our work with governments deal with them as individual governments and don’t try to treat them all as if it were the same set of circumstances.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Special Envoy.

MR ZUNIGA: Hey, Tracy.

QUESTION: You – hi.  You seem to be putting a lot of eggs in the Guatemala basket.  I say that because if – correct me if I’m wrong, but he was the only president you met with, and he is the only president that Kamala Harris has spoken to and she’s going to do this virtual summit on Monday.  And yet Guatemala arguably is just as corrupt as the other two countries, and it was Guatemala that killed the CICIG.  So why so much faith in Guatemala?  Thanks.

MR ZUNIGA: So the – right now the first country that I visited with – at that point with the southwest border coordinator, Roberta Jacobson, and with the senior director for the Western Hemisphere at NSC, Juan Gonzalez – it was Mexico. Mexico has really been our key partner in our efforts to manage migration. So in – the short version is that we, at this early date, have really focused on the countries that are at the center of this movement of people. Honduras certainly is the other main source, but Guatemala and Mexico are the main sources of irregular migration right now. And we’ve put a lot of focus on those, understanding that this is going to have to require a systemic approach.

I did travel also to El Salvador. I have engaged with the foreign minister of Honduras. In each of the countries, we’ve established working groups that are focused on the main lines of action that we’re going to be dealing with in this. And certainly one is migration management, but also on issues related to governance and corruption, on issues related to security, and on issues related to economic development. Those are the other areas of work.

So, again, these are areas of mutual interest. We work with all of the three countries in northern Central America and in the Northern Triangle and in – and very closely with Mexico. And at all times we’re prepared to collaborate with those who want to work with us on a broad agenda, including on governance issues.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. The White House implied earlier this month that the administration had reached new agreements with the three countries about border security, and some of them pushed back on that, saying any additional border security that they deployed – guards, things like that – happened before the administration even took office. So can you clarify whether or not you’ve reached any new agreements? And then, if so, what are you doing to ensure that people who have legitimate asylum claims can still make their journey north to make those claims? Thank you.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you for that. And it is very important to point out here that we don’t have new agreements to announce. What we have are – and they’re correct. We have a long history of collaboration with the region and on trying to manage migration. What we have seen, very importantly, is that with the administration’s focus on collaborative migration approaches is a greater level of cooperation, including on issues of protection.

It’s not just the United States. When I was in Guatemala, we and the Guatemalan authorities – the Guatemalan Government hosted a meeting with the major international organizations that are our main partners in the region: IOM and certainly UNHCR and others – UNICEF – and others who have an important role to play, including on protection. And so in the case of Mexico, we also have a very strong relationship on matters related to supporting international organizations as they work with the Mexican Government. It’s correct that governments are responding to their own legitimate border security needs (inaudible).

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Michelle Lee, please.

QUESTION: This is a question —

MR ZUNIGA: — in Central America – excuse me.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

MR ZUNIGA: Okay. And collaboration with countries in Central America has been to ensure that they have protection mechanisms that don’t require people to have to move all the way to the U.S. border to feel like they can – they can access at least protection screening. So that is the – that’s the other major effort that’s underway (inaudible).

QUESTION: Hello? This is Michelle Lee.

OPERATOR: Sir, your line cut out.

QUESTION: Oh, can I ask my question now?

MS PORTER: Hold tight with us one quick second. Thank you so much for your patience. We’re going to try to get him back on the line.

MR ZUNIGA: Hello?

MS PORTER: Hello, Special Envoy?

MR ZUNIGA: Hi. Yes, this is Ricardo. I’m so sorry. Something must have happened with my line dropping.

MS PORTER: Oh, glad to have you back. Now, we were on Michelle Lee. If you’re back, Michelle Lee, feel free to ask your question.

MR ZUNIGA: Michelle?

QUESTION: Okay, hello. Yes, it’s Michelle. Thanks for the —

MR ZUNIGA: Hey, so sorry.

QUESTION: It’s okay. Two questions. First, you’ve spoken about the need to provide political cover and technical support in order to help create sustained change from the inside of the countries, and I was wondering if you can talk some more about what the diplomatic efforts on governance looks like, and what realistically can be done to support those internal efforts.

And secondly, you may have been addressing this earlier when your – when you dropped off, but what sort of enforcement mechanisms is the U.S. considering? What are the options that the administration is willing to take, like trying to get the governments to tighten their own borders or impose new internal controls?

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. So on the first one, on governance, you’re right; addressing corruption is at the center of what the Biden administration has focused on in seeking to create those enabling conditions for broad-based improvement in Central America. So what that means in practice is two things. First is supporting those within the countries – and that’s civil society as well as public servants – who are involved in efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption and impunity. So that can mean some of the ongoing work that we’ve had in support of prosecutors and judges involved in this work as well as direct support to organizations like the CNA in Honduras and others that are civil society organizations that have a particular role in supporting the work against corruption. So that’s one portion of it.

We are also looking at a – putting together an anti-corruption task force that is going to involve the Department of Justice and other U.S. agencies, with the support of the Department of State, to focus on particular cases involving corruption as well as enhancing the capacity of prosecutors, investigators, and others to actually move forward with cases.

I think it’s really important here to underline that the United States, we were disappointed with the lapse of CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras and believe those were setbacks in efforts to promote transparency and combat impunity. Both those entities had very strong popular support, and it’s important for the United States to show that we’re on the side of those who are victims of corruption and not on the side of those who are involved in corruption. So part of this is demanding that accountability that the citizens of Central America demand. We are backing up and supporting that effort.

Now, in terms of migration enforcement, this is – the reality is that we have to work with not just ourselves but with countries in the region to ensure that they have the means to enforce their laws and to be able to monitor their borders kind of in line with their – with sort of normal government activity. And so that involves working with the border and immigration officials in each country. It means increasing information sharing and having a more active collaboration among the five countries involved here – United States, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – on managed migration.

That also includes – and these go together – ensuring that we are working to create legal pathways for migration and working to build protection for those vulnerable populations into migration systems across the region.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Stef Knight.

QUESTION: Hi, Special Envoy. Thanks for having this call. And my name is actually Stef Kight, just – it’s a normal mistake, but no N.

I was wondering if you could speak to kind of the aid portion of the tactics with Central America. How much is actually available to invest in these countries? And is there a timeline where you all are hoping to be able to really start pouring actual money, resources into some of these short-term and long-term goals?

MR ZUNIGA: So there is a certain amount of funding left from prior fiscal years, but the administration just put forward an initial request for $861 million to – that will be shared in greater detail next month in terms of how that – how we’re planning to allocate that funding. It’s an initial payment on the $4 billion over four years that President Biden announced before coming into office.

And the assistance is going to be focused in three areas: in promoting governance, better, improved governance, so combating corruption, but also promoting transparency and access to information on the part of citizens and working with the private sector to ensure that they also have – are operating on a level playing field.

The second area is going to be on promoting transparent – excuse me – prosperity. So that means promoting economic development. The private sector is going to have an even bigger role than U.S. assistance in that regard, but what we can do is help create the conditions where both domestic and foreign investment can help create more jobs and more opportunities in the region.

And finally, on security, that’s the last area that we’re going to be focused on. And there, it’s not just the issue of ensuring – combating the very high levels of violence that continue to plague the region, but also creating systems and judicial systems and supporting judicial systems that can offer justice to people in the region. We think that in terms of assistance, it’s important to, on the immediate basis, deal with some of the humanitarian issues that are driving migration on an acute basis. That means the lingering impacts from the hurricane, that means in particular the impact of the COVID pandemic on not just the health of Central American societies but also on the economies, and so helping to put those back on their feet are early priorities.

And then we’re also beginning to lay the groundwork for longer-term structural change by essentially forming strong partnerships in civil society with the private sector and with governments, but as well as with other donors so that we’re spreading the burden but also dividing some of this responsibility and ensuring that we’re not overlapping too much. So increased coordination is an important part of that longer-term work.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Jordan Fabian.

QUESTION: Thanks, Special Envoy. I wanted to ask you about the other side of the anti-corruption coin. You’ve talked about ways that the United States might try to incentivize governments to crack down on corruption, but what about – what is the United States going to do if these governments are obstinate? Are you guys considering sanctions against officials who are involved in corruption or anything even stronger than that? Thanks.

MR ZUNIGA: Yes, we are, and in fact, we have a mandate from the U.S. Congress to develop lists of officials who are involved in corruption and to propose actions against them. That can range from using State Department authorities to revoke visas of people involved in corruption and their family members. It can also mean working through the Department of the Treasury and Department of Justice to designate individuals who are involved in high levels of corruption. We’ve got the Global Magnitsky Act that we intend to make use of. Absolutely, the work against corruption involves not just incentives, but doing what we think is necessary and using the tools that we have from Congress to demonstrate our opposition to particular individuals and organizations involved in this.

Now, they can be involved not only in organized crime activity or money laundering but also in acts of corruption, because we think that corruption is one of the main drivers of instability in Central America. And again, we want to demonstrate that we are on the side of the victims of corruption and determined to act against those involved in corruption.

MS PORTER: Let’s take one final question from James Traub.

OPERATOR: My apologies. One moment here. James – yeah, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Yeah.

MR ZUNIGA: We can.

QUESTION: Okay. Okay. So one of the things you mentioned while you were in the region was the hope to expand the use of temporary seasonal visas for people coming from the Northern Triangle. And just a few days ago that number was announced at 6,000, which is a modest number and a modest increase over the existing number. And this gave people a lot of concern, I think, especially coming after Biden’s reversed announcement of the refugee cap, that the administration was getting cold feet on some of these issues. So could you address both the seasonal visa issue and that broader question?

MR ZUNIGA: So on the seasonal visa issues, we are looking at as many methods of creating legal pathways for people to come to United States. Labor is obviously an important part of that because so many – I mean, such a large percentage of the people coming irregularly are coming to try to work in the United States. And so clearly, we want to be able to use not just H-2Bs – that number was H-2B visas – but look at other possibilities as well. And the overall expansion was right around 20,000 additional H-2B visas and with 6,000 set aside for Central America.

There is an issue, which is that when you have – when you’re expanding seasonal labor visas to – or expanding them in a country, typically there requires some work at the beginning to establish connections between employees and employers in the United States. So there’s also the concern about, at least in this immediate phase, not designating so many for Central America that we aren’t able to fill them immediately or very quickly and then leave some visas on the table. We want these to be used. That’s for the capped visas.

H-2As, which are not capped, are also – those have their own complexities because most people in the H-2A program are Mexican nationals that have a longstanding relationship with employers in United States. It takes some work and time to develop those relationships, but those are two methods. We are looking at whatever legal methods we have available under the Immigration Nationality Act to regularize labor flows as much as possible. We understand that’s a part of the formula.

On the larger issue, I think that for one thing, it’s important to note that the entire migration system has been under intense strain. President Biden submitted comprehensive immigration reform proposals precisely because there’s an understanding that the current system hasn’t provided the speed, regularity, and access that the country needs. And we want to ensure that as many people have as much access as needed to legal pathways. We want to incentivize that. But there was enormous strain on the system, and it is taking time to put it – to kind of reconstitute an effective system, and for example, to re-initiate asylum processing on the – at the speed at which we would like to have it.

So this is a – it is a difficult time to be taking on the challenges related to migration. And in addition to that, there is a lot of – many of the resources of the U.S. Government are dedicated right now to dealing with the situation at the southwest border. So there is a strain on resources, there is a commitment to try to promote legal pathways as much as possible, and certainly there is a commitment to use the tools that we have available to ensure that we’re able to promote improved access for labor and temporary labor purposes in United States and match employers with potential employees in Central America.

MS PORTER: All right, Special Envoy, I actually – I said that was the last question, but I actually have one last alibi since you dropped on the line when Conor Finnegan was wanting to ask you about —

MR ZUNIGA: Totally fair.

MS PORTER: — U.S. making asylum claims. And so are you able to just provide a little bit of context on that? Can you provide those details on U.S. claims – on making U.S. asylum claims in other countries?

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. Do you mind – is he still on the line? I just wanted to hear the question again because I thought – I want to make sure I recalled it correctly.

MS PORTER: So he is – I don’t believe he – hold on. Let me just clarify one quick second. Operator, are you able to see if Conor Finnegan is on the line? I don’t believe he got back on.

OPERATOR: Yeah, I’ve got him now.

MS PORTER: Oh, great. Okay. There you go, Conor.

OPERATOR: Conor, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing that. And I appreciate the follow-up, Jalina. I just was asking what the administration is doing to ensure that folks who have legitimate asylum claims can make those claims. President Biden had mentioned allowing folks to make them while still in a third country. So any update on all of that? Thank you.

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. Certainly. Yes, this – access to protection is an important part of the work that we’re doing to promote collaborative migration management in the region. So the – our main partner in doing that is UNHCR, and the counterparts in countries in the case of Mexico, for example, COMAR is the partner in that effort. And what we’re focused on doing is ensuring that – it’s a recognition that – we’re focused on migration to the United States for the clear reason that it’s us and our border, but in fact there is – there are mass movements all across the Americas, from Venezuela and throughout South America.

And within Central America there’s quite a bit of movement from – by Nicaraguans into Costa Rica, for example, that strains resources there and into other countries. And so what we’re trying to do is help build up the capacity of both the national migration systems but also international organizations in – working in Central America to provide some level of security and protection for those who have the need. Now, in some cases there will be individuals who are found to have a status that would enable them to come to the United States, but in other cases there might be protection available closer to home and in the region.

And that’s something that we do, and Costa Rica is a – is certainly a very important partner in that regard, but we’re working with a number of countries to ensure that it’s – that’s it’s – there are other countries other than the United States that are also involved in this. So yes, that’s an important part of our work, and the State Department has the lead in doing so through our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and its relationships with UNHCR, IOM, and other international organizations.

MS PORTER: All right. Thank you all for joining the call this Earth Day. With that, the embargo is lifted. Have a good evening.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you very much.

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    What GAO Found The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)—within the Department of Energy (DOE)—and its contractors may have limited information on the prevalence of sexual harassment within the nuclear security forces. NNSA's nuclear security forces include federal agents in NNSA's Office of Secure Transportation (OST), which is responsible for transporting nuclear materials, and contracted guard forces at four of its sites. Federal officials at NNSA and contractor representatives at four NNSA sites that process weapons-usable nuclear material reported very few cases of sexual harassment from fiscal years 2015 through 2020. Research shows that the least common response to harassment is to report it or file a complaint. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—which enforces federal laws prohibiting harassment—suggests organizations survey employees to assess the extent to which harassment is a problem in their organization. NNSA does not survey employees on this topic, nor does NNSA call for such surveys in its contracts for security forces. Because NNSA relies solely on reported incidents, it may not have full knowledge into the nature or extent of sexual harassment in OST or by its contractors at its sites. Surveying employees would better position them to identify actions to effectively prevent and respond to harassment. To varying degrees, NNSA and its contractors follow EEOC's recommended practices to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in their nuclear security forces. For example, with respect to recommended training practices, NNSA and its contractors provide antiharassment training to all employees, but only one force offers workplace-specific training that addresses sexual harassment risk factors relevant to the security forces. Because NNSA has not formally reviewed EEOC's practices and considered which to adopt for its nuclear security forces, or made similar considerations for its security force contractors, the agency may be missing opportunities to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. Selected EEOC Practices for Effective Training to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment and Number of NNSA's Nuclear Security Forces That Reflect Those Practices in Training EEOC Promising Practice Number of forces that reflect the practice Provided to employees at every level and location of the organization 5 of 5 Tailored to the specific workplace and workforce 1 of 5 Explains the complaint process, as well as any voluntary alternative dispute resolution processes 2 of 5 Explains the range of possible consequences for engaging in prohibited conduct 1 of 5 Source: GAO comparison of National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and protective force contractor information with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) November 2017 Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment . | GAO-21-307 EEOC has found that NNSA and DOE do not meet all EEOC requirements relevant to preventing and responding to sexual harassment. For example, NNSA does not have an antiharassment program or a compliant antiharassment policy. According to EEOC officials, NNSA and DOE efforts to date have improved some aspects of their EEO programs, but because the agencies have not fully implemented their plans to address deficiencies identified by EEOC, DOE and NNSA may be missing opportunities to establish and maintain effective programs that include protection from and response to sexual harassment. Why GAO Did This Study Federal law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. Besides being harmful to those harassed, sexual harassment can decrease organizational performance and increase turnover. In January 2019, public allegations of sexual harassment in NNSA's nuclear security forces drew attention to this issue. House Report 116-120 provided that GAO review sexual harassment in NNSA's nuclear security force. This report examines (1) what NNSA and its contractors know about the prevalence of sexual harassment in their nuclear security forces, (2) the extent to which NNSA and its contractors implement EEOC recommendations to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, and (3) the extent to which EEOC found that NNSA and DOE meet its requirements relevant to sexual harassment. GAO reviewed information on sexual harassment and programs to address such harassment at DOE and NNSA from fiscal years 2015 through 2020. GAO analyzed documents and data, conducted a literature review, interviewed NNSA officials, and compared NNSA and contractor actions with EEOC-recommended practices for preventing harassment.
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  • Warfighter Support: DOD Needs a Complete Picture of the Military Services’ Prepositioning Programs
    In U.S GAO News
    The services preposition combat and support assets ashore and afloat worldwide, including in the Indo-Pacific region. Prepositioned assets include combat vehicles, equipment sets for engineering and construction, and protective gear for chemical or biological attacks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Defense (DOD) used prepositioned medical assets for personnel in Guam, South Korea, and Germany. All of the services have reported some shortfalls in their prepositioned assets from 2015 through 2019—including mortars, combat vehicles, and medical equipment. In the Indo-Pacific region, for example, the Army reported shortfalls in equipment to construct bridges over difficult terrain. All services also cited challenges, such as insufficient storage space, storage facilities located far away from intended points of use, and the perishability of some assets. In some cases, the services are taking actions to address these shortfalls and challenges. In others, the services are accepting risk because, according to officials, not all shortfalls and challenges can be fully addressed. Sailors and Marines Offload Assets from a Prepositioning Ship during the COVID-19 Response in Guam DOD has taken steps to implement a joint oversight framework but does not have a complete view of the services' prepositioning programs. DOD revised two guidance documents—an instruction in 2019 and a strategic implementation plan in 2020—to establish a joint oversight framework. However, DOD has focused much of its joint efforts to date on preparing a required annual report to Congress on the status of the services' prepositioning programs. While the report provides some useful information, GAO found inaccurate and inconsistent information in multiple annual reports, which hinder their utility. DOD does not have a reporting mechanism or information-collection tool to develop a complete picture of the services' prepositioning programs. The current annual reporting requirement expires in 2021, which provides DOD with an opportunity to create a new reporting mechanism, or modify existing mechanisms or tools, to enable a complete picture of the services' prepositioning programs. By doing so, DOD could better identify gaps or redundancies in the services' programs, make more informed decisions to mitigate asset shortfalls and challenges, reduce potential duplication and fragmentation, and improve its joint oversight. The U.S. military services preposition critical assets at strategic locations around the world for access during the initial phases of an operation. DOD uses these prepositioned assets for combat, support to allies, and disaster and humanitarian assistance. For many years, GAO has identified weaknesses in DOD's efforts to establish a joint oversight framework to guide its ability to assess the services' prepositioning programs. This has led to fragmentation and the potential for duplication. Senate Report 116-48 included a provision for GAO to evaluate the services' prepositioning programs and associated challenges. This report (1) describes the types of assets the services preposition worldwide, as well as asset shortfalls and challenges the services have identified, and (2) assesses the extent to which DOD has made progress in implementing a joint oversight framework for the services' programs. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed DOD prepositioning documents and interviewed DOD and State Department officials from over 20 offices. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in December 2020. Information that DOD deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO recommends that DOD develop a reporting mechanism or tool to gather complete information about the military services' prepositioning programs for joint oversight and to reduce duplication and fragmentation. DOD concurred with the recommendation. For more information, contact Cary B. Russell at (202) 512-5431 or russellc@gao.gov.
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  • Defense Reform: DOD Has Made Progress, but Needs to Further Refine and Formalize Its Reform Efforts
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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in establishing valid and reliable cost baselines for its enterprise business operations and has additional efforts ongoing. DOD's January 2020 report responding to section 921 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 addressed most of the key requirements from that section but also had some limitations, which DOD acknowledged. For example, the baselines included only labor and information technology costs because DOD's financial data do not attribute costs to other specific activities required under section 921. However, DOD officials told GAO they have developed and are continuing to refine baselines for all of the department's enterprise business operations, such as financial and human resource management, to enable DOD to better track the resources devoted to these operations and the progress of reform. While still in progress, this effort shows promise in addressing the weaknesses in DOD's section 921 report and in meeting the need for consistent baselines for DOD's reform efforts that GAO has previously identified. GAO found that DOD's reported savings of $37 billion from its reform efforts and a Defense-Wide Review to better align resources are largely reflected in its budget materials; however, the savings were not always well documented or consistent with the department's definitions of reform. Specifically: DOD had limited information on the analysis underlying its savings estimates, including (1) economic assumptions, (2) alternative options, and (3) any costs of taking the actions to realize savings, such as opportunity costs. Therefore, GAO was unable to determine the quality of the analysis that led to DOD's savings decisions. Further, some of the cost savings initiatives were not clearly aligned with DOD's definitions of reform, and thus DOD may have overstated savings that came from its reform efforts rather than other sources of savings, like cost avoidance. For example, one initiative was based on the delay of military construction projects. According to DOD officials, this was done to fund higher priorities. But if a delayed project is still planned, the costs will likely be realized in a future year. Without processes to standardize development and documentation of savings and to consistently identify reform savings based on reform definitions, decision makers may lack reliable information on DOD's estimated reform savings. In coordinating its reform efforts, DOD has generally followed leading practices for collaboration, but there is a risk that this collaboration may not be sustained in light of any organizational changes that Congress or DOD may make. This risk is increased because the Office of the Chief Management Officer (OCMO) and other offices have not formalized and institutionalized these efforts through written policies or agreements. Without written policies or formal agreements that define how organizations should collaborate with regard to DOD's reform and efficiency efforts, current progress may be lost, and future coordination efforts may be hindered. DOD spends billions of dollars each year to maintain key business operations. Section 921 of the NDAA for FY 2019 established requirements for DOD to reform these operations and report on their efforts. DOD has also undertaken additional efforts to reform its operations in recent years. Section 921 called for GAO to assess the accuracy of DOD's reported cost baselines and savings, and section 1753 of the NDAA for FY 2020 called for GAO to report on the OCMO's efficiency initiatives. This report assesses the extent to which DOD has (1) established valid and reliable baseline cost estimates for its business operations; (2) established well-documented cost savings estimates reflecting its reforms; and (3) coordinated its reform efforts. GAO assessed documents supporting costs, savings estimates, and coordination efforts; interviewed DOD officials; observed demonstrations of DOD's reform tracking tools; and assessed DOD's efforts using selected criteria. GAO is making three recommendations—specifically, that DOD establish formal processes to standardize development and documentation of cost savings; ensure that reported savings are consistent with the department's definition of reform; and formalize policies or agreements on its reform efforts. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness: DOD and Its Personnel Could Benefit from Additional Program Information
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    What GAO Found Personnel in the Department of Defense (DOD)—including service members and civilian employees—may be eligible for federal student loan forgiveness through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program if they remain in public service employment for 10 years while making 120 qualifying loan payments, among other requirements. As of January 2020, Department of Education (Education) data show that 287 DOD borrowers received loan forgiveness, while 5,180 DOD borrowers (about 94 percent) were denied (see figure). The most common reasons for the denials were not enough qualifying payments and missing information on the form. GAO previously reported in September 2019 an overall denial rate of 99 percent for all PSLF applications submitted by borrowers. More information from DOD could help potential applicants be aware of all eligibility requirements. Number of Department of Defense (DOD) Personnel Approved or Denied for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), as of January 31, 2020 Note: The “Civilian” categories include all civilian employees within DOD, including the military services. As its administrator, Education has specialized knowledge about the PSLF program but has not shared complete information with DOD. Education officials have not shared with DOD summary information about its personnel who have taken steps to pursue PSLF or service members who may be eligible. Education officials also stated they have not shared the benefits of using the PSLF program together with DOD's student loan repayment program. Education officials have also not updated the student loan guide for service members with specific information on PSLF. Education could take additional steps to improve information sharing about PSLF with DOD personnel. DOD officials expressed interest in obtaining more program information. Collaboration among the departments and updated program information could help DOD officials and its personnel to take full advantage of PSLF. DOD does not widely use the PSLF program for recruitment and retention to promote readiness despite facing challenges in certain specialty career fields. Some DOD officials we interviewed stated that they preferred to use other DOD benefits and incentives that DOD directly controls, such as bonuses or DOD's student loan repayment program. DOD could enhance its recruitment and retention efforts to promote readiness with department-wide and service-specific guidance about how the PSLF program could be used as a tool for such efforts. Why GAO Did This Study At a time when student loan debt continues to mount for many, the PSLF program—established in 2007 and administered by Education—is intended to encourage individuals to pursue careers in public service. Senate Report 116-48 included a provision for GAO to study the effectiveness of the PSLF program at promoting military and civilian recruitment and retention as well as military readiness. GAO's report assesses the extent to which (1) DOD personnel pursue and receive loan forgiveness through the PSLF program, (2) Education has shared information with DOD officials and its military and civilian personnel about the program, and (3) DOD uses the program for recruitment and retention to promote readiness. GAO analyzed student loan data from Education and the PSLF servicer from the beginning of the program through January 2020; reviewed relevant laws, documents, and other information related to PSLF, benefits, recruitment, retention, and readiness; and interviewed DOD and Education officials.
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