The China Initiative: Year-in-Review (2019-20)

On the two-year anniversary of the Attorney General’s China Initiative, the Department continues its significant focus on the Initiative’s goals and announced substantial progress during the past year in disrupting and deterring the wide range of national security threats posed by the policies and practices of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government.

“In the last year, the Department has made incredible strides in countering the systemic efforts by the PRC to enhance its economic and military strength at America’s expense,” said Attorney General William P. Barr.  “While much work remains to be done, the Department is committed to holding to account those who would steal, or otherwise illicitly obtain, the U.S. intellectual capital that will propel the future.”

“The Chinese Communist Party’s theft of sensitive information and technology isn’t a rumor or a baseless accusation.  It’s very real, and it’s part of a coordinated campaign by the Chinese government, which the China Initiative is helping to disrupt,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.  “The FBI opens a new China-related counterintelligence case nearly every 10 hours and we’ll continue our aggressive efforts to counter China’s criminal activity.”

Established in November 2018, the Initiative identified a number of goals for the Department, ranging from increased focus on the investigation and prosecution of trade secret theft and economic espionage, to better countering threats posed by Chinese foreign investment and supply chain vulnerabilities. 

Prioritize investigations of economic espionage and trade secret theft

The Initiative prioritizes use of the Department’s core tool, criminal investigation and prosecution, to counter economic espionage and other forms of trade secret theft.  In the past year, the Department charged three economic espionage cases (in which the trade secret theft was intended to benefit the Chinese government), bringing the total to five since the China Initiative was first announced.  Overall, since the Initiative was announced, we have charged more than 10 cases in which the trade secret theft had some alleged nexus to China, and we obtained guilty pleas of three defendants in those cases over the past year.

To take one example, the Department announced the China Initiative on the same day that it unsealed criminal charges against United Microelectronics (UMC), the Chinese state-owned enterprise Fujian Jinhua, and several individual defendants, for economic espionage that victimized Micron Technology, Inc., a leading U.S. semiconductor company. 

“The United Microelectronics case is a glaring example of the PRC’s ‘rob, replicate, and replace’ strategy, in which it robs a U.S. institution of its intellectual capital, replicates the stolen technology, and then endeavors to replace the U.S. institution on the Chinese and then the global market,” said John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security.  “Thanks to the dedication and diligence of prosecutors and FBI agents, UMC pleaded guilty to criminal trade secret theft and agreed to pay a fine of $60 million, the second largest fine in a trade secret case, and to cooperate in the pending prosecution of its co-defendants.”

The National Counterintelligence Task Force, co-led by the FBI, launched its first major campaign in 2020, devoted to protecting U.S. technology and research from the Chinese government and its proxies.  This is a further step in the FBI’s and Department’s efforts to enlist all appropriate partners in ensuring integrity in government-funded programs and defeating economic espionage and theft of trade secrets.

Develop an enforcement strategy for non-traditional collectors

At the outset, the Department identified academia as one of our most vulnerable sectors, because its traditions of openness, and the importance of international exchanges to the free flow of ideas, leave it vulnerable to PRC exploitation.  The Department has pursued a two-pronged strategy of raising awareness on campuses of the threats posed by China (and the importance of implementing a security program to detect them) and prosecuting researchers who have deliberately deceived authorities about their ties to China, which deprives institutions of the ability to screen for conflicts of interest and commitment, or otherwise exploited their access.

For example, the PRC has used talent programs to encourage the transfer of technical expertise from the United States, and elsewhere in the world, to benefit the PRC’s economic and military development.  Talent recruits generally sign contracts with the PRC sponsor-entity that obligate them to produce scientific outputs; to publish the results of their work in the name of the PRC beneficiary; to allow the PRC beneficiary to assert intellectual property rights over their outputs; and to recruit other researchers into the programs, among other obligations.  

In exchange, the talent recruits may receive lucrative compensation packages, prestigious titles, and custom-built laboratories. 

“While membership in these talent programs is not per se illegal, and the research itself may not always be protected as a trade secret, we know the PRC uses these plans, such as the well-known Thousand Talents Program, as a vehicle to recruit individuals with access to U.S. government-funded research to work in the interest of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Adam S. Hickey, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, National Security Division. 

The Initiative brings together resources from across the Department, including the National Security, Criminal, Tax, and the Civil Divisions to address this unique challenge fairly and effectively.  In the past year, Department prosecutors have brought fraud, false statements, tax, smuggling and other charges against ten academics affiliated with research institutions across the country.  To date, prosecutors have obtained convictions in three of those cases. 

This year, the FBI and Department prosecutors also exposed six individuals, studying in the United States, found to be connected to People’s Liberation Army military institutes, who concealed their affiliations from the State Department when applying for research visas to study at U.S. universities.  In one of those cases, the Department alleged that a PLA officer was being tasked by superiors in the PRC to obtain information that would benefit PLA operations.  In another case, a PLA medical researcher stands accused of following orders to observe lab operations at a U.S. university, which received funding from the U.S. government, in order to replicate those operations in the PRC. 

In each of the cases, the defendants are accused of concealing their PLA affiliations in order to obtain visas that allowed them to travel to the United States.  After the FBI conducted interviews this summer that led to charges in those cases and the State Department closed the PRC’s Houston Consulate, a large number of undeclared, PLA-affiliated Chinese researchers fled the United States.

Those six examples are just part of the interagency effort to protect academia and taxpayer-funded research.  The FBI and Department have been collaborating with federal grant-making agencies, the Joint Committee on the Research Environment, the major academic associations, the Academic Security and Counter Exploitation working group, and other appropriate entities, as well as hundreds of individual universities nationwide. 

Counter malicious cyber activity

The Department continues to expose and disrupt efforts by the PRC government to steal our intellectual property and our personally identifiable information (PII) through computer intrusions.  During the past year, we charged hackers working for the People’s Liberation Army with the 2017 Equifax intrusion and others associated with the Ministry of State Security (MSS) in relation to global computer intrusion campaigns targeting biomedical companies conducting COVID-19-related research, engineering firms, and software makers.  One such MSS case resulted in the arrest of two conspirators in Malaysia.  Two of these cases highlighted China’s development into a safe harbor for criminal hackers who also work for the PRC.  The Department disrupted these cyber threats in coordination with the private sector, using legal process to seize control of hacking infrastructure while the private sector removed other infrastructure from their platforms. 

In May, the FBI, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, also issued a public announcement to raise awareness of the threat to COVID-19 research by PRC-affiliated cyber actors and offer advice on better protecting that research from thefts.

Counter malign foreign influence

The Department has used the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”), which requires those acting to influence public policy and opinion on behalf of a foreign individual or entity, to improve transparency and expose China’s foreign influence efforts.  Over the past year, the Department opened a record number of FARA investigations overall and doubled the number of new registrants and new foreign principals registering annually as of 2016.  That includes obtaining a record number of registrations from Chinese media companies.  The Department also notified a registered Chinese media company that its filings were deficient because they failed to fully disclose its activity in the United States and failed to properly label its informational materials.  The media entity remedied those deficiencies shortly thereafter. 

Through its outreach efforts to universities, the Department has highlighted the need to protect foreign students studying in the United States from coercive efforts by the Communist Party to censor the freedom of thought and expression that all students here should enjoy.

In late 2019, the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force formally established a new unit devoted specifically to understanding and defeating the malign foreign influence threat from the Chinese government and its proxies.

Counter foreign intelligence activities

The Department has achieved a number of successes in the last year in countering China’s foreign intelligence activities.  China has been targeting former members of the U.S. intelligence community for recruitment, and the Department has been holding accountable individuals who succumb to their efforts.  In November 2019, a former CIA case officer was sentenced to 19 years in prison for conspiring to deliver national defense information to the PRC.  In August 2020, another former CIA officer who had been tasked by the PRC was arrested on the same charge — the fourth former intelligence officer charged in the last three years for similar conduct. 

The Department is particularly focused on disrupting the PRC government from using career networking and social media sites to target Americans, as well as holding those accountable who hide behind fake profiles to co-opt individuals on behalf of the PRC.  As one part of this effort, the FBI, in partnership with the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, created an educational film, “The Nevernight Connection,” which was released online in September 2020 to educate the public about the Chinese intelligence services’ use of social media to spot and recruit persons of interest, especially current or former security clearance holders.

In March 2020, Xuehua (Edward) Peng was sentenced to 48 months in prison, and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine, for acting as an agent of the PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) in connection with a scheme to conduct pickups known as “dead drops” and transport Secure Digital cards containing classified information from a source in the United States to the MSS operatives in China. 

In October 2020, Jun Wei Yeo was sentenced to 14 months in prison for acting within the United States as an agent of the MSS recruiting Americans, including U.S. military and government employees with high-level clearances. Yeo concealed his MSS affiliation from his American targets and used career networking sites and a false consulting firm to lure them to write papers which he ultimately passed to his MSS handlers.

In October 2020, eight defendants were charged with conspiring to act in the United States as illegal agents of the PRC, six of whom also face related charges of conspiring to commit interstate and international stalking.  According to the complaint, the defendants participated in an international campaign to threaten, harass, surveil and intimidate a resident of New Jersey and his family in order to force them to return to the PRC as part of an international effort by the PRC government known as “Operation Fox Hunt” and “Operation Skynet.”

In furtherance of the operation, the PRC government targets Chinese individuals living in foreign countries that the PRC government alleges have committed crimes under PRC law and seeks to repatriate them to the PRC to face charges, rather than rely upon proper forms of international law enforcement cooperation.

Foreign investment reviews and telecommunications security

Beyond criminal enforcement, the Department worked to protect our national assets from national security risks posed by entities, subject to PRC influence, that seek to invest in U.S. companies or integrate into our supply chains. 

In April, the Department assumed the permanent chair of the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector, established by the President through Executive Order (EO), in 2020.  This organization, also known as “Team Telecom,” is an interagency group that reviews telecommunications, submarine cable landing, wireless, broadcast license, and other applications referred by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to identify and address risks to national security and law enforcement.  In the first 90 days after the Executive Order, the Department led Team Telecom to resolve more than half of the cases then pending review.

Team Telecom recommended that the FCC revoke and terminate the international telecommunications licenses held by the U.S. subsidiary of a PRC state-owned telecommunications company, China Telecom, the first revocation ever recommended by Team Telecom on national security grounds.  Team Telecom also recommended that the FCC partially deny a submarine cable application, to the extent it sought a direct connection between the United States and Hong Kong. 

Following the President’s 2019 Executive Order on Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain, the Department has worked with the Commerce Department to develop regulations implementing the EO and has identified vulnerable areas of critical infrastructure that are ripe for investigation under the EO.

The Department also worked to implement the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA), which improved the authorities of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).  During the previous year, the Department co-led a record number of significant CFIUS matters, on an annualized basis, including the investigation of the acquisition of a U.S. hotel management software company by a Chinese company, which the President prohibited, for just the sixth time in CFIUS history.  Under FIRRMA, the FBI continued to provide analytical assistance to support CFIUS’s decision-making and identify high-risk non-notified transactions.

With its increased resources, NSD has played a significant role in CFIUS enforcement, leading the Committee to assess just the second penalty in its history, for failing to secure sensitive personal data in violation of a 2018 interim CFIUS order.  NSD also dedicated personnel to identify transactions of concern that were not voluntarily filed with CFIUS and developed a program to identify bankruptcy cases that could implicate national security concerns.  The bankruptcy program helps to protect U.S. assets from predatory acquisitions, including PRC acquisitions that could impact our national security, which is particularly important in light of the economic impact of COVID-19.

Education and outreach

The success of the China Initiative is not measured by criminal cases and administrative actions alone, however.  Outreach to businesses and academia is critical to helping America’s national assets better protect themselves.  For that reason, the Department disseminated outreach presentations for use by U.S. Attorneys in their Districts, which have been deployed at various events.  The FBI sustained its engagement with the private sector through various programs, and it developed and disseminated an innovative Academia Field Guide to support focused outreach by its academic outreach coordinators in all 56 field offices.  In the coming year, the Department, through the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, will continue to expand our partnerships outside the federal government, because the support of the American people is critical to our success.  All of our efforts are on their behalf.     

The Attorney General commends the professionals throughout the Department, including those who work at Main Justice, the FBI, and U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country, who are committed to meeting the goals of the China Initiative and encourage them to redouble their efforts in the upcoming year. 

All defendants, in the cases mentioned herein, are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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    What GAO Found The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initially expected to implement the entire Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART) by 2021; however, no segments of the program have been deployed to date. Currently estimated to cost $4.3 billion in total, DHS plans to deploy increment 1 of the program in December 2021 and expects to implement later increments in 2022 and 2024. Increment 1 is expected to replace the functionality of the existing system. Although the multi-billion dollar HART program had suffered continuing delays, until the end of last year, the DHS Chief Information Officer (CIO) had reported the program as low risk on the IT Dashboard, a website showing, among other things, the performance and risks of agency information technology (IT) investments. In May 2020, the Office of the CIO began developing a new assessment process which led to the CIO accurately elevating HART's rating from low to high risk and reporting this rating to the IT Dashboard in November 2020. In addition, consistent with OMB guidance, the CIO fulfilled applicable oversight requirements for high-risk IT programs by, among other things, conducting a review of the program known as a TechStat review. While the CIO complied with applicable oversight requirements in conducting the TechStat review, GAO noted that DHS's associated policy was outdated. Specifically, the 2017 policy does not reflect the revised process DHS started using in 2020. As such, until the guidance is updated, other departmental IT programs deemed high risk would likely not be readily aware of the specific process requirements. Concurrent with the CIO's actions to conduct oversight, HART program management has also acted to implement important risk management practices. Specifically, GAO found that HART had fully implemented four of seven risk management best practices and partially implemented the remaining three (see table). For example, as of February 2021, the program had identified 49 active risks, including 15 related to cost and schedule and 17 related to technical issues. While DHS has plans under way to fully implement two of the partially implemented practices, until it fully implements the remaining practice its efforts to effectively monitor the status of risks and mitigation plans may be hampered. Summary of the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology Program's Implementation of the Seven Risk Management Practices Practice GAO assessment 1. Determine risk sources and categories ● 2. Define parameters to analyze and categorize risks ● 3. Establish and maintain a risk management strategy ◑ 4. Identify and document risks ● 5. Evaluate and categorize each identified risk using defined risk categories and parameters, and determine its relative priority ● 6. Develop a risk mitigation plan in accordance with the risk management strategy ◑ 7. Monitor the status of each risk periodically and implement the risk mitigation plan as appropriate ◑ Legend: ● = Fully implemented ◑ = Partially implemented ○ = Not implemented Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-21-386 Why GAO Did This Study DHS currently uses an outdated system, implemented over 27 years ago, for providing biometric identity management services (i.e., fingerprint matching and facial recognition technology services), known as the Automated Biometric Identification System, or IDENT. In 2016, DHS initiated a multi-billion dollar program known as HART, which is intended to replace the existing system. GAO was asked to evaluate the HART program. Its specific objectives, among others, were to (1) determine the status of the program, (2) assess the extent to which the DHS CIO was accurately reporting risk and meeting applicable oversight requirements, and (3) assess the extent to which the program was identifying and managing its risks. To accomplish these objectives, GAO identified the program's schedule and cost estimates, assessed the CIO's risk ratings and HART oversight documentation and related evidence against OMB guidance, and compared the program's risk management practices to best practices that are essential to identifying and mitigating potential problems. In addition, GAO interviewed appropriate officials.
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    Why this Matters Safe vaccines are critical to fighting diseases, from polio to COVID-19. Research shows that the protection provided by U.S. licensed vaccines outweighs their potential risks. However, misinformation and unjustified safety concerns can cause people to delay or refuse vaccination, which may increase preventable deaths and prolong negative social and economic impacts. The Science What is it? A vaccine is generally considered safe when the benefits of protecting an individual from disease outweigh the risks from potential side effects (fig. 1). The most common side effects stem from the body's immune reaction and include swelling at the injection site, fever, and aches. Figure 1. Symptoms of polio and side effects of the polio vaccine. A vaccine is generally considered safe if its benefits (preventing disease) outweigh its risks (side effects). In rare cases, some vaccines may cause more severe side effects. For example, the vaccine for rotavirus—a childhood illness that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and even death—can cause intestinal blockage in one in 100,000 recipients. However, the vaccine is still administered because this very rare side effect is outweighed by the vaccine's benefits: it saves lives and prevents an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 childhood hospitalizations in the U.S. each year. The two messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines authorized for COVID-19—a disease that contributed to more than 415,000 American deaths between January 2020 and January 2021—can cause severe allergic reactions. However, early safety reporting found that these reactions have been extremely rare, with only about five cases per 1 million recipients, according to data from January 2021 reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, side effects from vaccines are less acceptable to the public than side effects from treatments given to people who already have a disease. What is known? Vaccine developers assess safety from early research, through laboratory and animal testing, and even after the vaccine is in use (fig. 2). Researchers may rely on previous studies to inform future vaccine trials. For example, safety information from preclinical trials of mRNA flu vaccine candidates in 2017 allowed for the acceleration of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine development. Vaccine candidates shown to be safe in these preclinical trials can proceed to clinical trials in humans. In the U.S., clinical trials generally proceed through three phases of testing involving increasing numbers of volunteers: dozens in phase 1 to thousands in phase 3. Although data may be collected over years, most common side effects are identified in the first 2 months after vaccination in clinical trials. After reviewing safety and other data from vaccine studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may license a vaccine to be marketed in the U.S. There are also programs to expedite—but not bypass—development and review processes, such as a priority review designation, which shortens FDA’s goal review time from 10 to 6 months. Safety monitoring continues after licensing. For example, health officials are required to report certain adverse events—such as heart problems—following vaccination, in order to help identify potential long-term or rare side effects that were not seen in clinical trials and may or may not be associated with the vaccine. Figure 2. Vaccine safety is assessed at every stage: development through post-licensure. Following a declared emergency, FDA can also issue emergency use authorizations (EUA) to allow temporary use of unlicensed vaccines if there is evidence that known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh known and potential risks, among other criteria. As of January 2021, two COVID-19 vaccines had received EUAs, after their efficacy and short-term safety were assessed through large clinical trials. However, developers must continue safety monitoring and meet other requirements if they intend to apply for FDA licensure to continue distribution of these vaccines after the emergency period has ended. What are the knowledge gaps? One knowledge gap that can remain after clinical trials is whether side effects or other adverse events may occur in certain groups. For example, because clinical trials usually exclude certain populations, such as people who are pregnant or have existing medical conditions, data on potential adverse events related to specific populations may not be understood until vaccines are widely administered. In addition, it can be difficult to determine the safety of new vaccines if outbreaks end suddenly. For example, vaccine safety studies were hindered during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic when a large increase in the number of cases was followed by a sharp decrease. This disrupted the clinical trials of Ebola vaccine candidates, because the trials require many infected and non-infected people. Furthermore, a lack of understanding and/or misinformation about the steps taken to ensure the safety of vaccines hinders accurate public knowledge about safety concerns, which may cause people to delay or refuse vaccination. This resulting hesitancy may, in turn, increase deaths, social harm, and economic damage. Opportunities Continuing and, where necessary, improving existing vaccine safety practices offers the following opportunities to society: Herd immunity. Widespread immunity in a population, acquired in large part through safe and effective vaccines, can slow the spread of infection and protect those most vulnerable. Health care improvements. Vaccinations can reduce the burden on the health care system by reducing severe symptoms that require individuals to seek treatment. Eradication. Safe vaccination programs, such as those combatting smallpox, may eliminate diseases to the point where transmission no longer occurs. Challenges There are a number of challenges to ensuring safe vaccines: Public confidence. Vaccine hesitancy, in part due to misinformation or historic unethical human experimentation, decreases participation in clinical trials, impeding identification of side effects across individuals with different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Mutating viruses. Some viruses, such as those that cause the flu or COVID-19, may mutate rapidly and thus may require new or updated vaccines, for which ongoing safety monitoring is important. Long-term and rare effects. Exceedingly rare or long-term effects may not be identified until after vaccines have been widely administered. Further study is needed to detect any such effects and confirm they are truly associated with the vaccine. Policy Context & Questions What steps can policymakers take to improve public trust and understanding of the process of assessing vaccine safety? How can policymakers convey the social importance of vaccines to protect the general public and those who are most vulnerable? How can policymakers leverage available resources to support ongoing vaccine development and post-licensure safety monitoring? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Agile Software Development
    In U.S GAO News
    Why This Matters Agile software development has the potential to save the federal government billions of dollars and significant time, allowing agencies to deliver software more efficiently and effectively for American taxpayers. However, the transition to Agile requires an investment in new tools and processes, which can be costly and time consuming. The Methodology What is it? Agile is an approach to software development that encourages collaboration across an organization and allows requirements to evolve as a program progresses. Agile software development emphasizes iterative delivery; that is, the development of software in short, incremental stages. Customers continuously provide feedback on the software's functionality and quality. By engaging customers early and iterating often, agencies that adopt Agile can also reduce the risks of funding failing programs or outdated technology. Figure 1. Cycle of Agile software development How does it work? Agile software development is well suited for programs where the end goal is known, but specific details about their implementation may be refined along the way. Agile is implemented in different ways. For example, Scrum is a framework focused on teams, Scaled Agile Framework focuses on scaling Agile to larger groups, and DevOps extends the Agile principle of collaboration and unites the development and operation teams. Scrum, one of the most common Agile frameworks, organizes teams using defined roles, such as the product owner, who represents the customer, prioritizes work, and accepts completed software. In Scrum, development is broken down into timed iterations called sprints, where teams commit to complete specific requirements within a defined time frame. During a sprint, teams meet for daily stand-up meetings. At the end of a sprint, teams present the completed work to the product owner for acceptance. At a retrospective meeting following each sprint, team members discuss lessons learned and any changes needed to improve the process. Sprints allow for distinct, consistent, and measurable progress of prioritized software features. How mature is it? Organizations have used versions of incremental software development since the 1950s, with various groups creating Agile frameworks in the 1990s, including Scrum in 1995. In 2001, a group of software developers created the Agile Manifesto, which documents the guiding principles of Agile. Following this, Agile practitioners introduced new frameworks, such as Kanban, which optimizes work output by visualizing its flow. The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), enacted in 2014, includes a provision for the Office of Management and Budget to require the Chief Information Officers of covered agencies to certify that IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development. This development approach delivers capabilities more rapidly by dividing an investment into smaller parts. As a result, more agencies are now adopting an incremental, Agile, approach to software development. For example, in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security announced five Agile pilot programs. In 2020, at least 22 Department of Defense major defense acquisition programs reported using Agile development methods.  As the federal government continues to adopt Agile, effective oversight of these programs will be increasingly crucial. Our GAO Agile Assessment Guide, released in 2020, takes a closer look at the following categories of best practices: Agile adoption. This area focuses on team dynamics, program operations, and organization environments. One best practice for teams is to have repeatable processes in place such as continuous integration, which automates parts of development and testing. At the program operations level, staff should be appropriately trained in Agile methods. And at an organizational level, a best practice is to create a culture that supports Agile methods. Requirements development and management. Requirements—sometimes called user stories—are important in making sure the final product will function as intended. Best practices in this area include eliciting and prioritizing requirements and ensuring work meets those requirements. Acquisition strategy. Contractors may have a role in an Agile program in government. However, long timelines to award contracts and costly changes are major hurdles to executing Agile programs. One way to clear these hurdles is for organizations to create an integrated team with personnel from contracting, the program office, and software development. Clearly identifying team roles will alleviate bottlenecks in the development process. Figure 2. Different roles come together to make an Agile software development team. Program monitoring and control. Many Agile documents may be used to generate reliable cost and schedule estimates throughout a program’s life-cycle. Metrics. It is critical that metrics align with and prioritize organization-wide goals and objectives while simultaneously meeting customer needs. Such metrics in Agile include the number of features delivered to customers, the number of defects, and overall customer satisfaction.  Opportunities Flexibility. An Agile approach provides flexibility when customers’ needs change and as technology rapidly evolves. Risk reduction. Measuring progress during frequent iterations can reduce technical and programmatic risk. For example, routine retrospectives allow the team to reflect upon and improve the development process for the next iteration. Quicker deliveries. Through incremental releases, agencies can rapidly determine if newly produced software is meeting their needs. With Agile, these deliveries are typically within months, instead of alternative development methods, which can take years. Challenges GAO has previously reported on challenges the federal government faces in applying Agile methods; for the full report see GAO-12-681. Lack of organizational commitment. For example, organizations need to create a dedicated Agile team, which is a challenge when there is an insufficient number of staff, or when staff have several simultaneous duties. Resources needed to transition to Agile. An organization transitioning to Agile may need to invest in new tools, practices, and processes, which can be expensive and time consuming. Mistrust in iterative solutions. Customers who typically see a solution as a whole may be disappointed by the delivery of a small piece of functionality. Misaligned agency practices. Some agency practices, such as procurement, compliance reviews, federal reporting, and status tracking are not designed to support Agile software development. Policy and Context Questions In what ways can Agile help the federal government improve the management of IT acquisitions and operations, an area GAO has identified as high risk for the federal government? How can policymakers implement clear guidance about the use of Agile software development, such as reporting metrics, to better support Agile methods? How might resources need to shift to accommodate the adoption of Agile in federal agencies? What risks could those shifts pose? What updates to agency practices are worth pursuing to support Agile software development? For more information, contact Tim Persons at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov.
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    The ambient air quality monitoring system is a national asset that provides standardized information for implementing the Clean Air Act and protecting public health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state and local agencies cooperatively manage the system, with each playing different roles in design, operation, oversight, and funding. For example, EPA establishes minimum requirements for the system, and state and local agencies operate the monitors and report data to EPA. Officials from EPA and selected state and local agencies identified challenges related to sustaining the monitoring system. For example, they said that infrastructure is aging while annual EPA funding for state and local air quality management grants, which cover monitoring, has decreased by about 20 percent since 2004 after adjusting for inflation (see fig.). GAO found inconsistencies in how EPA regions have addressed these challenges. GAO's prior work has identified key characteristics of asset management, such as identifying needed resources and using quality data to manage infrastructure risks, which can help organizations optimize limited resources. By developing an asset management framework that includes such characteristics, EPA could better target limited resources toward the highest priorities for consistently sustaining the system. Annual Inflation-Adjusted EPA Funding for State and Local Air Quality Management Grants Air quality managers, researchers, and the public need additional information so they can better understand and address the health risks from air pollution, according to GAO's review of literature and interviews GAO conducted. These needs include additional information on (1) air toxics to understand health risks in key locations such as near industrial facilities; and (2) how to use low-cost sensors to provide real-time, local-scale air quality information. EPA and state and local agencies face persistent challenges meeting such air quality information needs, including challenges in understanding the performance of low-cost sensors. GAO illustrated this challenge by collecting air quality data from low-cost sensors and finding variability in their performance. EPA has strategies aimed at better meeting the additional air quality information needs of managers, researchers, and the public, but the strategies are outdated and incomplete. For example, they do not clearly define roles for meeting additional information needs. GAO's prior work on asset management suggests that a more strategic approach could help EPA modernize the system to better meet the additional information needs. By developing a modernization plan that aligns with leading practices for strategic planning and risk management, such as establishing modernization goals and roles, EPA could better ensure that the system meets the additional information needs of air quality managers, researchers, and the public and is positioned to protect public health. The national ambient air quality monitoring system shows that the United States has made progress in reducing air pollution but that risks to public health and the environment continue in certain locations. The system consists of sites that measure air pollution levels around fixed locations across the country using specific methods. Since the system began in the 1970s, air quality concerns have changed—such as increased concern about the health effects of air toxics. GAO was asked to evaluate the national air quality monitoring system. This report examines the role of the system and how it is managed, challenges in managing the system and actions to address them, and needs for additional air quality information and actions to address challenges in meeting those needs. GAO reviewed literature, laws, and agency documents; conducted a demonstration of low-cost sensors; and interviewed EPA officials, selected state and local officials, representatives from air quality associations, and stakeholders. GAO is making two recommendations for EPA to (1) establish an asset management framework for the monitoring system that includes key characteristics and (2) develop an air quality monitoring modernization plan that aligns with leading practices. In written comments on the report, EPA generally agreed with the recommendations. For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), within the Department of the Interior (Interior), has not provided BIE-funded schools with comprehensive guidance on distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, BIE issued a short memo directing schools to “deliver flexible instruction” and “teach content,” but did not offer specific guidance on how to do so. In July 2020, 13 of the 25 schools that responded to GAO's survey said they wanted BIE to provide information on developing and implementing distance learning programs. In addition, 12 schools responded that they wanted information on distance learning methods for areas without broadband internet access. In August 2020, after some schools had already begun the school year, BIE issued a re-opening guide for the 2020-2021 school year. BIE's guidance focused primarily on preparations for in-person instruction at schools, although nearly all schools provided distance learning during the fall of 2020. The guidance contained little information on distance learning. Providing schools with comprehensive distance learning guidance will help them better navigate the current pandemic as well as potential future emergencies that lead to school building closures. BIE helped improve internet access for students at BIE-operated schools during the pandemic, but many students had not received laptops to access online learning by the end of fall 2020. BIE and other Interior offices provided over 7,000 hotspots to students to improve home internet access, but they did not order laptops for most students until September 2020. Interior officials said a nationwide IT supply shortage contributed to the delayed order for about 10,000 laptops. GAO found, however, that delays were also caused in part by BIE not having complete and accurate information on schools' IT needs. Most schools received laptops from late October 2020 to early January 2021, although some laptops still had not been delivered as of late March 2021. Once laptops were delivered, however, schools also faced challenges configuring them, leading to further delays in distributing them to students. BIE officials told GAO that to address schools' challenges with configuring laptops, they are assessing schools' IT workforce needs. Most BIE students did not receive laptops until months after the school year began, according to GAO's analysis of Interior information. Specifically, none of the laptops Interior ordered in early September 2020 arrived in time to distribute to students by the start of the school year in mid-September; by the end of December 2020, schools had not distributed over 80 percent of the student laptops Interior ordered; and as of late March 2021, schools had not distributed about 20 percent of the student laptops Interior ordered. Without accurate, complete, and up-to-date information on schools' IT needs, BIE was unable to ensure that students received laptops when they needed them. Establishing policies and procedures for assessing schools' IT needs would help guide the agency's IT purchases now and in the future, and position schools to integrate technology into their everyday curricula. Why GAO Did This Study BIE's mission is to provide quality education to approximately 41,000 students at 183 schools it funds on or near Indian reservations in 23 states. About two-thirds of these schools are operated by tribes and the remaining third are operated by BIE. In March 2020, all BIE schools closed their buildings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed distance learning at BIE schools as part of its oversight responsibilities under the CARES Act. This testimony examines the extent to which (1) BIE has provided schools with guidance to develop and implement distance learning programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and (2) students have had the technology they need to participate in such programs. GAO analyzed the guidance BIE provided to schools on distance learning, examined BIE's provision of technology to schools and students, surveyed a non-generalizable sample of 30 schools—including 19 operated by tribes and 11 operated by BIE— with 25 schools responding, selected for geographic diversity and level of community broadband access, among other criteria, reviewed relevant federal statutes, regulations, and agency documentation, and interviewed BIE and school officials.
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