Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
On behalf of the United States of America, I extend congratulations to all Equatoguineans on the 53rd anniversary of your independence.
The United States values our relationship with Equatorial Guinea, and we are committed to our partnership that is working to end the COVID-19 pandemic and recover from its impact, combat trafficking in persons, and promote maritime security and economic growth. In the coming year, we will continue to support Equatoguinean efforts to improve democratic governance and respect for human rights and strengthen our economic ties.
As you celebrate another year of independence, we send our wishes for a peaceful and prosperous year.
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- Federal Advisory Committees: Actions Needed to Enhance Decision-Making Transparency and Cost Data AccuracyBy Sam NewsSeptember 10, 2020GAO reviewed 11 selected committees covered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) that serve the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury. GAO found that these committees met many, but not all, selected transparency requirements established by FACA, General Services Administration (GSA) FACA regulations, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). FACA committees GAO reviewed published timely notices for 70 of 76 meetings and solicited public comments for all open meetings held by the committees. However, four of the 11 committees did not follow one or more selected requirements to renew charters, decide on proposed recommendations during open meetings, or compile minutes. Five FACA committees GAO reviewed did not always follow requirements in OMB Circular A-130 for federal agencies to make public documents accessible online. GSA encourages agencies to post committee documents online consistent with OMB requirements. However, according to GSA's Office of the General Counsel, GSA's authority under FACA is not broad enough to require agencies to fulfill the OMB requirements. Eight of the nine selected FACA committees in our original sample that make recommendations to agencies attempt to track the agencies' responses to and implementation status of recommendations. However, many committees do not make this information fully available to the public online. Improved public reporting could enhance congressional and public visibility into the status of agencies' responses to committee recommendations. Selected Requirements for Advisory Committees Covered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) The selected agencies and FACA committees reported that they implemented a range of practices to help ensure agency officials do not exert inappropriate influence on committees' decisions. These practices include limiting committee members' interactions with agency officials outside committee meetings. GAO also found that about 29 percent of the 11 selected committees' cost data elements in GSA's FACA database for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 were inconsistent with corresponding cost data from selected agency and committee records and systems. In the absence of reliable cost data, Congress is unable to fully rely on these data to inform decisions about funding FACA committees. FACA requires federal agencies to ensure that federal advisory committees make decisions that are independent and transparent. In fiscal year 2019, nearly 960 committees under FACA played a key role in informing public policy and government regulations. GAO was asked to review the transparency and independence of FACA committees and data collected in GSA's FACA database. This report examines (1) selected agencies' and committees' adherence to transparency requirements; (2) their practices to help ensure that agency officials do not exert inappropriate influence on committee decision-making; and (3) the extent to which GSA's FACA database contained accurate, complete, and useful cost information for these committees. GAO selected a non-generalizable sample of 11 FACA committees serving three agencies, based in part on costs incurred and numbers of recommendations made. GAO analyzed documents and interviewed agency officials and committee members. GAO also reviewed FACA database cost data for the 11 committees. Congress should consider requiring online posting of FACA committees' documents. GAO is also making nine recommendations to agencies to improve FACA committee transparency and data accuracy. Agencies agreed with six recommendations, and GSA described steps to address recommendations to it. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or SagerM@gao.gov.[Read More…]
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- Climate Change: USAID Is Taking Steps to Increase Projects’ Resilience, but Could Improve Reporting of Adaptation FundingBy Sam NewsJuly 30, 2020The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided at least $810 million to directly and indirectly support climate adaptation from fiscal years 2014 through 2018—the latest available data at the time of GAO's analysis. However, USAID ended new funding for programming activities that directly address climate adaptation (i.e., direct funding) in fiscal year 2017 in part due to a shift in administration priorities, according to agency officials. However, following a congressional directive in the fiscal year 2020 appropriations act, USAID restored direct funding for adaptation programming. GAO found that USAID did not consistently report all funding data for activities that indirectly addressed climate adaptation, which does not align with expectations in foreign assistance guidance and internal controls standards. USAID's direct adaptation assistance had the primary program goal of enhancing resilience and reducing vulnerability. For example, in the Philippines, a USAID activity assisted communities in preparing for extreme weather events by developing maps of potential hazards to aid in evacuation planning. USAID attributed funding that indirectly addresses climate adaptation assistance (i.e., indirect funding) from programs with other goals such as agriculture, where priorities include supporting food production and distribution. For example, in Guatemala, a USAID agricultural activity worked with farmers to transition to crops with greater economic benefits that are also drought tolerant. However, not all missions with indirect adaptation assistance reported these funding data and reporting has varied, in part, because the agency has not clearly communicated the expectation to do so. Without addressing this issue, USAID risks providing incomplete and inconsistent data to Congress and others. A Community Leader Shows the Hazard Map Prepared as Part of a U.S. Agency for International Development Project to Help Adapt to Climate Change in the Philippines Since October 2016, USAID has generally required projects and activities to conduct climate risk management, which is the process of assessing and managing the effects of climate change. USAID requires documentation of this process and GAO's review found 95 percent compliance for USAID's priority countries for adaption funding. USAID has experienced some challenges with its initial implementation of climate risk management and is assessing these challenges and identifying improvements. For example, mission officials said that some technical staff lack expertise to do climate risk management and that their environment offices had a small number of staff to provide assistance. To help staff conduct climate risk management, USAID is building staff capacity through trainings and is in the process of evaluating implementation of the policy and whether it requires any changes, among other efforts. USAID is the primary U.S. government agency helping countries adapt to the effects of climate change. USAID has provided this assistance through activities that directly address climate adaptation as well as indirectly through activities that received funding for other purposes, such as agriculture, but which also support climate adaptation goals. GAO was asked to review issues related to U.S. foreign assistance for climate adaptation. For USAID, this report examines (1) funding the agency provided for climate adaptation assistance in fiscal years 2014 through 2018, and (2) how climate risk management is implemented. GAO analyzed funding data and documentation of agency activities and climate risk management; interviewed agency and project officials; and conducted fieldwork in three countries receiving adaptation assistance—Guatemala, the Philippines, and Uganda. GAO selected these countries based on the amount of funding they received for climate adaptation activities, geographic diversity, and variety of observed and projected climate effects, among other factors. GAO recommends that USAID communicate to its missions and bureaus that they are expected to report all data on funding that indirectly addresses climate adaptation. USAID agreed with the recommendation and outlined a number of steps the agency plans to take to improve the reporting of these data. For more information, contact David Gootnick at (202) 512-3149 or email@example.com.[Read More…]
- Warfighter Support: DOD Needs Additional Steps to Fully Integrate Operational Contract Support into Contingency PlanningBy Sam NewsAugust 24, 2021What GAO FoundThe Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the Joint Staff, and the services have taken steps to integrate operational contract support into planning for contingency operations. For example, in April 2011, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, working with the Joint Staff, revised the Guidance for the Employment of the Force to require planning for operational contract support in all phases of military operations. Further, in December 2011, the Department of Defense (DOD) revised an instruction and issued corresponding regulations establishing policies and procedures for operational contract support. The Army issued service-specific guidance that describes roles, responsibilities, and requirements to help integrate operational contract support into its planning efforts for contingency operations. However, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force have not issued similar comprehensive guidance for integrating operational contract support throughout each service. Instead, these services have taken actions such as developing training and other individual efforts to familiarize servicemembers with operational contract support. According to service officials, one reason that they have not issued comprehensive guidance similar to the Army's guidance is because the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force have not been the lead service for contracting in recent operations. However, these services combined spent over a billion dollars for contracted services in Afghanistan in fiscal year 2011. Without specific, service-wide guidance, the other services' future planning efforts may not reflect the full extent of the use of contract support and the attendant cost and need for oversight.The combatant commands and their components have begun to incorporate operational contract support into their planning for contingencies, but they have not fully integrated operational contract support in all functional areas. We found that the combatant commands and components are not planning for the potential use of contractors in areas where they may be needed beyond logistics such as communications. Recognizing the problem, DOD, in October 2012, issued guidance that calls on functional planners beyond the logistics area to identify major support functions planned for commercial support sourcing. GAO also found that officials involved with logistics planning at the commands receive training from the Joint Staff and assistance from embedded operational contract support planners to help integrate operational contract support into logistics planning. However, officials involved in planning for other areas--such as intelligence--that have used contractors in past operations, do not receive such training. Further, the embedded operational contract support planners do not focus on areas beyond logistics. Moreover, while the combatant commands have embedded experts to assist with operational contract support planning, the military service components do not have such expertise. Without training for all planners, a broader focus beyond logistics for embedded planners, and expertise offered at the military service components, DOD risks being unprepared to plan and manage deployed contractor personnel and may not be able to provide the necessary oversight during future contingencies.Why GAO Did This StudyDOD has relied extensively on contractors for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. At the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the number of contractors exceeded the number of military personnel, and a similar situation is occurring in Afghanistan. In January 2011, the Secretary of Defense issued a memorandum noting the risk of DOD's level of dependency on contractors and outlined actions to institutionalize changes necessary to influence how the department plans for contracted support in contingency operations. The memorandum also called for leveraging the civilian expeditionary workforce to reduce DOD's reliance on contractors, but this workforce is not yet fully developed. GAO was asked to examine DOD's progress in planning for operational contract support. Our review determined how DOD is integrating operational contract support into its planning through efforts of the (1) OSD, Joint Staff, and military services, and (2) combatant commands and their components. To conduct its work, GAO evaluated DOD operational contract support guidance and documents and met with officials at various DOD offices.[Read More…]
- 2018 Pacific Island Disasters: Federal Actions Helped Facilitate the Response, but FEMA Needs to Address Long-Term Recovery ChallengesBy Sam NewsFebruary 3, 2021The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took steps prior to the 2018 disasters in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, and Hawaii to facilitate response in the region, where time and distance from the continental United States create unique challenges. For instance, FEMA increased the capacity of two Pacific-area supply distribution centers and helped develop area specific disaster response plans. FEMA and its federal partners, such as the Department of Defense (DOD), had varied response roles, which local officials in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii considered effective. For example, DOD provided temporary roof repair for disaster survivors in the CNMI. Damage from Typhoon Yutu in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (left) and the Kilauea Volcano Eruption in Hawaii (right) As of October 2020, FEMA obligated $877 million—more than 70 percent of which was for Individual and Public Assistance missions—following the 2018 disasters and made progress addressing some region specific challenges. However, FEMA has not fully addressed housing assistance issues in the CNMI. For example, it experienced delays implementing its Permanent Housing Construction program in the CNMI due to contracting shortfalls and lack of experienced staff. As of October 2020, only about 30 percent of homes were completed and returned to survivors. GAO found that these housing assistance challenges are consistent with lessons learned from prior FEMA missions in other remote areas of the U.S. Developing guidance that addresses lessons learned in the Permanent Housing Construction program could help streamline assistance to disaster survivors. GAO also identified delays in FEMA's obligation of Public Assistance program funds—used to repair or replace disaster-damaged public infrastructure such as utilities, roads, and schools—in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii. Specifically, on average, it took over a year for FEMA to approve funds for projects awarded after the 2018 disasters. FEMA and local officials identified potential reasons for the delays, including cost estimation challenges. FEMA established cost factors in the CNMI to account for higher construction costs, and GAO found that FEMA collects some data on the timeliness of individual steps in the process. However, FEMA has not analyzed the data to help identify causes of the delays, which could allow it to target solutions to address them. The CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii experienced an unprecedented number of natural disasters in 2018—including typhoons, earthquakes, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions. FEMA is the lead federal agency responsible for helping states and territories prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. Due to the remoteness of Hawaii and the Pacific territories, disaster response and recovery can be challenging. Title IX of the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 includes a provision for GAO to review FEMA's response and recovery efforts for 2018 natural disasters, including those in the Pacific region. This report examines (1) how FEMA and its federal partners prepared for and responded to the 2018 disasters in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii; and (2) the extent to which FEMA assisted the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii in recovering from the 2018 natural disasters. GAO analyzed program documents, response plans, and data on FEMA obligations, expenditures, and grant process steps as of October 2020; interviewed federal, state, territorial, and local officials; and visited disaster-damaged areas in Hawaii. GAO is making four recommendations, including that FEMA (1) incorporate lessons learned into Permanent Housing Construction guidance; and (2) use performance data to identify and address inefficiencies in the Public Assistance program. The Department of Homeland Security concurred, and FEMA is taking actions in response. For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
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- Medicare: Provider Performance and Experiences Under the Merit-Based Incentive Payment SystemBy Sam NewsOctober 1, 2021What GAO Found The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) administers the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) under the Medicare program. Under this system, MIPS-eligible providers receive a “final score” based on their performance on certain measures in four categories, such as quality and cost of care. This final score is compared to a performance threshold and is used to determine if providers receive a negative, neutral, or positive payment adjustment applied to future Medicare payments. Providers may receive a larger positive adjustment if their final score surpasses a higher threshold, known as the exceptional performance threshold. In addition, eligible providers who do not submit required performance data may receive a negative adjustment. Analysis of CMS data shows that final scores were generally high and at least 93 percent of providers earned a small positive adjustment in 2017 through 2019, with the largest payment adjustment in any year being 1.88 percent. Median final scores were well above the performance threshold across each of the 3 years (see figure). About 72 to 84 percent of providers earned an exceptional performance bonus, depending on the year. Median Final Scores Relative to Performance and Exceptional Performance Thresholds, Performance Years 2017 through 2019 Stakeholders GAO interviewed identified some strengths and challenges related to the MIPS program. For example, two of the 11 stakeholders stated that bonus points, such as those that may be added to the final scores for small practices, helped increase scores for certain providers who might otherwise be disadvantaged. Eight stakeholders questioned whether the program helps to meaningfully improve quality of care or patient health outcomes. For example, they said that the design of the program may incentivize reporting over quality improvement, with providers choosing to report on quality measures on which they are performing well, rather than on measures in areas where they may need improvement. According to CMS, the MIPS Value Pathways (MVP)—a new way of meeting reporting requirements in 2023—will help to address some of these challenges by standardizing performance measurement across specific specialties, medical conditions, or episodes of care. The development of clinically cohesive sets of measures and activities should minimize providers' selection burden in choosing measures and activities to report for each MVP, officials said. Why GAO Did This Study The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) changed how Medicare pays for physician services, moving from a payment system that largely rewarded volume and complexity of health care services to the Quality Payment Program, which is a payment incentive program intended to reward high-quality, efficient care. Providers participate in the Quality Payment Program through one of two tracks: MIPS or advanced alternative payment models. MIPS was designed to incentivize high-quality care through performance-based payment adjustments. About 950,000 providers (about half of all Medicare Part B providers) were eligible to participate in MIPS in 2019. Congress included a provision in MACRA for GAO to examine the MIPS program. This report describes (1) the distribution of MIPS performance scores and related payment adjustments, and (2) stakeholders' perspectives on the strengths and challenges of the MIPS program. GAO analyzed MIPS data for performance years 2017 through 2019—the most recent year available at the time of GAO's analysis. GAO also interviewed officials from CMS and 11 selected professional organizations that represent MIPS-eligible providers of various specialties. GAO identified stakeholders through research and its analysis of the MIPS data. The Department of Health and Human Services provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or FarbJ@gao.gov.[Read More…]
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- Aircraft Noise: FAA Could Improve Outreach Through Enhanced Noise Metrics, Communication, and Support to CommunitiesBy Sam NewsSeptember 28, 2021What GAO Found The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses established policies to assess potential noise effects of implementing performance-based navigation (PBN) at airports. FAA has been implementing PBN to allow aircraft to fly more precise flight paths intended to reduce flying time, fuel use, and emissions, and PBN may reduce aircraft noise for some communities. FAA uses the Day-Night Average Sound Level (DNL) metric to meet legal requirements in assessing how these more precise flight paths—which can concentrate noise over a smaller area—might affect noise levels at various locations surrounding airports. DNL accounts for the noise intensity, duration, frequency, and time of occurrence for flights above a particular location over an average day. GAO's analysis showed that because DNL combines the effects of several components of noise into a single metric, it does not provide a clear picture of the flight activity or associated noise levels at a given location. For example, 100 flights per day can yield the same DNL as one flight per day at a higher decibel level, due to the averaging effect of FAA's metric (see figure). GAO's analysis and other research demonstrate the limitations of FAA relying solely on DNL to identify potential noise problems. Also, community concerns about increased noise after PBN implementation, among other factors, have led to legal challenges and delays, reducing the realized benefits of PBN. Since no single metric can convey different noise effects, using additional metrics—such as changes in number of flights overhead—in designing proposed flight paths could help FAA identify and address potential noise concerns. Examples of Different Flight-Frequency and Sound Exposure Levels Resulting in a Day-Night Average Sound Level (DNL) of 65 decibels (dB) Over time, FAA has increased its community outreach efforts throughout the PBN implementation process. However, most community stakeholders GAO spoke with said information on potential noise impacts was not clear enough to understand the planned changes. For instance, because FAA's description of the impacts is grounded in DNL, communities may not have the information needed to understand how the number of flights over each location is expected to change. Similar to the use of supplemental metrics in designing a flight path, using them in public outreach may help communities better understand expected noise changes. Furthermore, after implementing PBN, FAA primarily conducts outreach through community forums established to address noise concerns. However, members of some forums GAO spoke with were frustrated and unclear on how to productively engage with FAA to address noise concerns. FAA has some guidance on this process, but it is unclear about the extent to which communities can expect assistance from FAA in proposing changes to flight paths that cause noise concerns. Clearly communicating FAA's expected role in this outreach to the public may help alleviate community frustration. Why GAO Did This Study As part of its effort to modernize the National Airspace System, FAA has been implementing new flight paths using satellite-based navigation, called PBN, at airports across the country. GAO reviewed FAA's implementation of PBN with regard to noise and FAA's related public outreach activities. This report discusses: (1) how FAA assesses potential noise impacts for proposed PBN changes; (2) the extent to which FAA's noise impact analysis conveys expected changes; and (3) FAA's community outreach related to PBN and actions to improve this outreach. GAO reviewed FAA documents and guidance related to PBN implementation and to community outreach and mathematically analyzed how DNL levels reflect changes in noise caused by aircraft overhead. GAO conducted case studies at 13 airports selected to achieve a range of perspectives based on annual operations, the timing of PBN implementation, and geographic location, among other factors. GAO interviewed FAA and local airport officials, industry stakeholders, and community representatives in the selected locations.[Read More…]
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