Veterans Affairs: Ongoing Financial Management System Modernization Program Would Benefit from Improved Cost and Schedule Estimating

What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Financial Management Business Transformation (FMBT) program has begun implementing the Integrated Financial and Acquisition Management System (iFAMS), with the first deployment of certain capabilities at the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) on November 9, 2020. FMBT program officials identified various challenges, such as FMBT program funding shortfalls, which represent the difference between VA’s original requirement and the President’s budget request, and coordination with other major initiatives. VA has taken various steps to address its challenges. For example, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, VA postponed the initial NCA deployment 4 months and converted planning, training, and testing activities to virtual events. In addition, the FMBT program and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) worked together to address the FMBT program funding shortfall by postponing iFAMS implementation at VHA for at least 2 years to coordinate with the implementation of a new logistics system.

Following information technology (IT) management best practices on major transformation efforts, such as the FMBT program, can help build a foundation for ensuring responsibility, accountability, and transparency. VA has generally met such practices for program governance, Agile project management, and testing and defect management. However, it has not fully met certain best practices for developing and managing cost and schedule estimates. As a result, its estimates were not reliable. Specifically, VA’s estimates substantially met one, and partially or minimally met three of the four characteristics associated with reliable cost and schedule estimates, respectively. For example, VA minimally met the “credible” characteristic associated with reliable cost estimates, in part, because it did not compare its cost estimate to an independently developed estimate.

GAO Assessment of VA Cost and Schedule Estimates against Best Practice Characteristics

Cost estimate characteristic

Assessment of cost estimate

Schedule estimate characteristic

Assessment of schedule estimate

Comprehensive

Partially met

Comprehensive

Partially met

Well-documented

Substantially met

Well-constructed

Partially met

Accurate

Partially met

Credible

Partially met

Credible

Minimally met

Controlled

Substantially met

Legend: substantially met = VA provided evidence that satisfies a large portion of the criterion; partially met = VA provided evidence that satisfies about one-half of the criterion; minimally met = VA provided evidence that satisfies a small portion of the criterion

Source: GAO assessment of the Department of Veterans Affairs Financial Management Business Transformation program documentation. | GAO-21-227

Reliable cost and schedule estimates provide a road map for project execution and are critical elements to delivering large-scale IT systems. Without reliable estimates, VA management may not have the information necessary for informed decision-making. Further, following cost and schedule best practices helps minimize the risk of cost overruns and schedule delays and would better position the FMBT program for effective and successful implementation on future deployments.

Why GAO Did This Study

VA’s core financial system is approximately 30 years old and is not integrated with other relevant IT systems, resulting in inefficient operations and complex work-arounds. The FMBT program is VA’s current effort and third attempt to replace its aging financial and acquisition systems with one integrated system. The first two attempts were unsuccessful after years of development and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost.

GAO was asked to review the progress of the FMBT program. This report (1) describes the status of the FMBT program, including steps VA has taken to address challenges it has identified, and (2) examines the extent to which VA has followed certain IT management best practices. GAO summarized FMBT program risks and challenges that VA identified, reviewed FMBT program documentation and compared it with relevant guidance and best practices, and interviewed cognizant VA officials.

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WWF has responded to complaints of human rights abuses through this mechanism by reporting the allegations to relevant authorities and meeting with community representatives. U.S. agencies provide training and equipment for park rangers overseas to combat wildlife trafficking. From fiscal years 2014 through 2020, the U.S. government provided approximately $554 million to undertake a range of activities through federal agencies and in cooperation with implementing partner organizations in the field. Multiple non-governmental organization and media reports, however, have alleged that organizations that have received U.S. funds have supported park rangers engaged in combating wildfire trafficking who have committed human rights violations since the mid-2000s. GAO was asked to review human rights protection mechanisms related to U.S. efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This report examines 1) what enforcement mechanisms agencies have to prevent U.S. funded efforts to combat wildlife trafficking from supporting human rights abuses and how they implement them, and 2) how agencies and implementing partners address allegations of human rights abuses. GAO spoke with agency officials and implementing partner representatives locally in person and overseas by phone, and collected and analyzed information related to program implementation. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.
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  • Air Pollution: Opportunities to Better Sustain and Modernize the National Air Quality Monitoring System
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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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  • Department of Energy Contracting: Improvements Needed to Ensure DOE Assesses Its Full Range of Contracting Fraud Risks
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO identified nine categories of contracting fraud schemes that occurred at the Department of Energy (DOE), including billing schemes, conflicts of interest, and payroll schemes. For example, a subcontractor employee at a site created fraudulent invoices for goods never received, resulting in a loss of over $6 million. In another scheme, a contractor engaged in years of widespread time card fraud, submitting inflated claims for compensation. The contractor agreed to pay $18.5 million to settle the case. DOE reported that it identified nearly $15 million in improper payments due to confirmed fraud in fiscal year 2019. However, due to the difficulty in detecting fraud, agencies—including DOE—incur financial losses related to fraud that are never identified or are settled without admission to fraud and are not counted as such. Fraud can also have nonfinancial impacts, such as fraudsters obtaining a competitive advantage and preventing legitimate businesses from obtaining contracts. DOE has taken some steps and is planning others to demonstrate a commitment to combat fraud and assess its contracting fraud risks, consistent with the leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. However, GAO found that DOE has not assessed the full range of contracting fraud risks it faces. Specifically, GAO found DOE's methods for gathering information about its fraud risks captures selected fraud risks—rather than all fraud risks—facing DOE programs. As shown in the figure, DOE's risk profiles for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 did not capture four of nine fraud schemes that occurred at DOE. For example, one entity did not include any fraud risks in its risk profiles, yet GAO identified six types of fraud schemes that occurred at the entity's site. DOE plans to expand its risk assessment process, but officials expect the new process will continue to rely on a methodology that gathers information on selected fraud risks. The Fraud Risk Framework states that entities identify specific tools, methods, and sources for gathering information about fraud risks. Without expanding its methodology to capture, assess, and document all fraud risks facing its programs, DOE risks remaining vulnerable to these types of fraud. Fraud Risks Identified in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 Risk Profiles Compared with Types of Fraud Schemes That Have Occurred at DOE DOE is planning to develop an antifraud strategy in fiscal year 2022 and has taken some steps to evaluate and adapt to fraud risks, consistent with leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. Part of DOE's effort to manage fraud risks includes adapting controls to address emerging fraud risks. Additionally, DOE is planning to expand its use of data analytics to detect contracting fraud, beginning in fiscal year 2022. DOE relies primarily on contractors to carry out its missions at its laboratories and other facilities, spending approximately 80 percent of its total obligations on contracts. GAO and DOE's Inspector General have reported on incidents of fraud by DOE contractors and identified multiple contracting fraud risks. GAO was asked to examine DOE's processes to manage contracting fraud risks. This report examines, for DOE, (1) types of contracting fraud schemes and their financial and nonfinancial impacts, (2) steps taken to commit to combating contracting fraud risks and the extent to which these risks have been assessed, and (3) steps taken to design and implement an antifraud strategy and to evaluate and adapt its approach. GAO reviewed relevant laws and guidance; reviewed agency media releases, Agency Financial Reports, and DOE Inspector General reports to Congress from 2013 through 2019; and reviewed documents and interviewed officials from 42 DOE field and site offices, contractors, and subcontractors, representing a range of sites and programs. GAO is making two recommendations, including for DOE to expand its fraud risk assessment methodology to ensure all fraud risks facing DOE programs are fully assessed and documented in accordance with leading practices. DOE concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Shea at (202) 512-6722 shear@gao.gov or Allison B. Bawden at (202) 512-3841, bawdena@gao.gov.
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  • Offshore Wind Energy: Planned Projects May Lead to Construction of New Vessels in the U.S., but Industry Has Made Few Decisions amid Uncertainties
    In U.S GAO News
    Under the Jones Act, vessels carrying merchandise between two points in the U.S. must be built and registered in the United States. Developers are planning a number of offshore wind projects along the U.S. east coast, where many states have set targets for offshore wind energy production. Stakeholders described two approaches to using vessels to install offshore wind energy projects in the U.S. Either approach may lead to the construction of new vessels that comply with the Jones Act. Under one approach, a Jones Act-compliant wind turbine installation vessel (WTIV) would carry components from a U.S. port to the site and also install the turbines. WTIVs have a large deck, legs that allow the vessel to lift out of the water, and a tall crane to lift and place turbines. Stakeholders told GAO there are currently no Jones Act-compliant vessels capable of serving as a WTIV. One company, however, has announced a plan to build one. Under the second approach, a foreign-flag WTIV would install the turbines with components carried to the site from U.S. ports by Jones Act-compliant feeder vessels (see figure). While some potential feeder vessels exist, stakeholders said larger ones would probably need to be built to handle the large turbines developers would likely use. Example of an Offshore Wind Installation in U.S. Waters Using a Foreign-Flag Installation Vessel and Jones Act-Compliant Feeder Vessels Stakeholders identified multiple challenges—which some federal programs address—associated with constructing and using Jones Act-compliant vessels for offshore wind installations. For example, stakeholders said that obtaining investments in Jones Act-compliant WTIVs—which may cost up to $500 million—has been challenging, in part due to uncertainty about the timing of federal approval for projects. According to officials at the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for approving offshore wind projects, the Department plans to issue a decision on the nation's first large-scale offshore wind project in December 2020. Some stakeholders said that if this project is approved, investors may be more willing to move forward with vessel investments. While stakeholders also said port infrastructure limitations could pose challenges to using Jones Act-compliant vessels for offshore wind, offshore wind developers and state agencies have committed to make port investments. Offshore wind, a significant potential source of energy in the United States, requires a number of oceangoing vessels for installation and other tasks. Depending on the use, these vessels may need to comply with the Jones Act. Because Jones Act-compliant vessels are generally more expensive to build and operate than foreign-flag vessels, using such vessels may increase the costs of offshore wind projects. Building such vessels may also lead to some economic benefits for the maritime industry. A provision was included in statute for GAO to review offshore wind vessels. This report examines (1) approaches to use of vessels that developers are considering for offshore wind, consistent with Jones Act requirements, and the extent to which such vessels exist, and (2) the challenges industry stakeholders have identified associated with constructing and using such vessels to support U.S. offshore wind, and the actions federal agencies have taken to address these challenges. GAO analyzed information on vessels that could support offshore wind, reviewed relevant laws and studies, and interviewed officials from federal agencies and industry stakeholders selected based on their involvement in ongoing projects and recommendations from others. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    Few of the 23 civilian Chief Financial Officers Act agencies had implemented seven selected foundational practices for managing information and communications technology (ICT) supply chain risks. Supply chain risk management (SCRM) is the process of identifying, assessing, and mitigating the risks associated with the global and distributed nature of ICT product and service supply chains. Many of the manufacturing inputs for these ICT products and services originate from a variety of sources throughout the world. (See figure 1.) Figure 1: Examples of Locations of Manufacturers or Suppliers of Information and Communications Technology Products and Services None of the 23 agencies fully implemented all of the SCRM practices and 14 of the 23 agencies had not implemented any of the practices. The practice with the highest rate of implementation was implemented by only six agencies. Conversely, none of the other practices were implemented by more than three agencies. Moreover, one practice had not been implemented by any of the agencies. (See figure 2.) Figure 2: Extent to Which the 23 Civilian Chief Financial Officers Act Agencies Implemented Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Supply Chain Risk Management (SCRM) Practices As a result of these weaknesses, these agencies are at a greater risk that malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities in the ICT supply chain causing disruption to mission operations, harm to individuals, or theft of intellectual property. For example, without establishing executive oversight of SCRM activities, agencies are limited in their ability to make risk decisions across the organization about how to most effectively secure their ICT product and service supply chains. Moreover, agencies lack the ability to understand and manage risk and reduce the likelihood that adverse events will occur without reasonable visibility and traceability into supply chains. Officials from the 23 agencies cited various factors that limited their implementation of the foundational practices for managing supply chain risks. The most commonly cited factor was the lack of federal SCRM guidance. For example, several agencies reported that they were waiting for federal guidance to be issued from the Federal Acquisition Security Council—a cross-agency group responsible for providing direction and guidance to executive agencies to reduce their supply chain risks—before implementing one or more of the foundational practices. According to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials, the council expects to complete this effort by December 2020. While the additional direction and guidance from the council could further assist agencies with the implementation of these practices, federal agencies currently have guidance to assist with managing their ICT supply chain risks. Specifically, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) issued ICT SCRM-specific guidance in 2015 and OMB has required agencies to implement ICT SCRM since 2016. Until agencies implement all of the foundational ICT SCRM practices, they will be limited in their ability to address supply chain risks across their organizations effectively. Federal agencies rely extensively on ICT products and services (e.g., computing systems, software, and networks) to carry out their operations. However, agencies face numerous ICT supply chain risks, including threats posed by counterfeiters who may exploit vulnerabilities in the supply chain and, thus, compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of an organization's systems and the information they contain. For example, in September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency reported that federal agencies faced approximately 180 different ICT supply chain-related threats. To address threats such as these, agencies must make risk-based ICT supply chain decisions about how to secure their systems. GAO was asked to conduct a review of federal agencies' ICT SCRM practices. The specific objective was to determine the extent to which federal agencies have implemented foundational ICT SCRM practices. To do so, GAO identified seven practices from NIST guidance that are foundational for an organization-wide approach to ICT SCRM and compared them to policies, procedures, and other documentation from the 23 civilian Chief Financial Officers Act agencies. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in October 2020. Information that agencies deemed sensitive was omitted and GAO substituted numeric identifiers that were randomly assigned for the names of the agencies due to sensitivity concerns. The foundational practices comprising ICT SCRM are: establishing executive oversight of ICT activities, including designating responsibility for leading agency-wide SCRM activities; developing an agency-wide ICT SCRM strategy for providing the organizational context in which risk-based decisions will be made; establishing an approach to identify and document agency ICT supply chain(s); establishing a process to conduct agency-wide assessments of ICT supply chain risks that identify, aggregate, and prioritize ICT supply chain risks that are present across the organization; establishing a process to conduct a SCRM review of a potential supplier that may include reviews of the processes used by suppliers to design, develop, test, implement, verify, deliver, and support ICT products and services; developing organizational ICT SCRM requirements for suppliers to ensure that suppliers are adequately addressing risks associated with ICT products and services; and developing organizational procedures to detect counterfeit and compromised ICT products prior to their deployment. GAO also interviewed relevant agency officials. In the sensitive report, GAO made a total of 145 recommendations to the 23 agencies to fully implement foundational practices in their organization-wide approaches to ICT SCRM. Of the 23 agencies, 17 agreed with all of the recommendations made to them; two agencies agreed with most, but not all of the recommendations; one agency disagreed with all of the recommendations; two agencies neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations, but stated they would address them; and one agency had no comments. GAO continues to believe that all of the recommendations are warranted, as discussed in the sensitive report. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harrisCC@gao.gov.
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  • Survivors of Childhood Cancer: Factors Affecting Access to Follow-up Care
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    Stakeholders GAO interviewed and studies GAO reviewed identified three factors that affect access to follow-up care for childhood cancer survivors—individuals of any age who were diagnosed with cancer from ages 0 through 19. These factors are care affordability, survivors' and health care providers' knowledge of appropriate care, and proximity to care. Childhood cancer survivors need access to follow-up care over time for serious health effects known as late effects—such as developmental problems, heart conditions, and subsequent cancers—which result from their original cancer and its treatment. Affordability: Survivors of childhood cancer may have difficulty paying for follow-up care, which can affect their access to this care. For example, one study found that survivors were significantly more likely to have difficulty paying medical bills and delay medical care due to affordability concerns when compared to individuals with no history of cancer. Knowledge: Survivors' access to appropriate follow-up care for late effects of childhood cancer can depend on both survivors' and providers' knowledge about such care, which can affect access in various ways, according to stakeholders GAO interviewed and studies GAO reviewed: Some survivors may have been treated for cancer at an early age and may have limited awareness of the need for follow- up care. Some primary or specialty care providers may not be knowledgeable about guidelines for appropriate follow-up care, which can affect whether a survivor receives recommended treatment. Follow-up care may include psychosocial care (e.g., counseling), and palliative care (e.g., pain management). Proximity: Survivors may have difficulty reaching appropriate care settings. Stakeholders GAO interviewed and studies GAO reviewed noted that childhood cancer survivors may have to travel long distances to receive follow-up care from multidisciplinary outpatient clinics—referred to as childhood cancer survivorship clinics. The lack of proximity may make it particularly difficult for survivors with limited financial resources to adhere to recommended follow-up care. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that conduct activities specific to childhood cancer survivors, including research about access to care—have taken steps to implement three provisions in the Childhood Cancer Survivorship, Treatment, Access, and Research Act of 2018 (Childhood Cancer STAR Act) relevant to access to care for survivors. For example, CDC has awarded a contract to develop software to improve the collection of information on individuals with childhood cancer, and NCI has funded three research projects focused on interventions aimed at addressing adverse outcomes among childhood cancer survivors. NCI has also funded research to study the health status and use of follow-up services of 2,000 young adult survivors. Stakeholders have raised questions about the ability of childhood cancer survivors to access needed follow-up care. According to the most recent data available, approximately 465,000 childhood cancer survivors—children, adolescents, and adults—were alive in the United States as of January 1, 2017. Although the 5-year survival rate for childhood cancer has increased from about 62 percent in the mid-1970s to about 86 percent in the mid-2010s, childhood cancer survivors may face late effects, which could require follow-up care across multiple stages of their lives. The conference report accompanying Public Law 115-245 included a provision for GAO to report on barriers to obtaining medical care for childhood cancer survivors, including psychosocial services and palliative care. This report identifies factors reported to affect access to follow-up care for this population. GAO spoke with officials from NCI and CDC and interviewed stakeholders such as providers who care for childhood cancer survivors, professional associations, and advocacy groups. Additionally, GAO reviewed peer-reviewed studies related to access to care for survivors, outcomes of treatment they may receive, and factors that may affect their access to follow-up care. To supplement this work, GAO reviewed the status of selected HHS activities to support access to care for childhood cancer survivors, including steps taken to implement selected provisions in the Childhood Cancer STAR Act. GAO provided a draft of this report to HHS for review and comment. HHS provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or FarbJ@gao.gov.
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