U.S. Postal Service: Volume, Performance, and Financial Changes since the Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic

What GAO Found

In 2020, the majority of which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) experienced a 9 percent drop in total mail volume when compared to 2019. The overall drop was primarily due to a 4 percent dip in First-Class Mail and a 14 percent decline in Marketing Mail (such as advertisements). Despite a drop in total volume, 2020 package volume rose by 32 percent. A surge of election-related mail caused a temporary spike in total mail volume in September and October 2020, before falling again by year end.

Overall, USPS’s nationwide on-time performance fell in 2020. Average monthly on-time performance for First-Class Mail decreased from 92 percent in 2019 to 87 percent in 2020. However, decreases were more significant in certain USPS districts at different times, and nationally in December 2020. On-time performance was 48 percent in New York in April and 61 percent in Baltimore in September—both of which were nearly 90 percent prior to the pandemic (see figure). Further, national on-time performance dipped to 69 percent in December. In February 2021, the Postmaster General stated that on-time performance was affected by employees’ decreased availability in COVID-19 hot spots and a surge in holiday package volume.

2020 Average Monthly On-Time Performance for First-Class Mail in Baltimore, Detroit, and New York Postal Districts

USPS’s revenue increased in 2020 but not enough to avoid a net loss of $8.1 billion. Rapid growth and price increases for packages, resulted in a net revenue increase of $4.3 billion. However, USPS’s expenses grew by $4.4 billion, including COVID-19 related expenses, such as personal protective equipment. USPS took some cost-reduction actions in 2020 and released a new strategic plan in March 2021 that also has cost-reduction actions. In May 2020, GAO concluded that absent congressional action to transform USPS, USPS’s financial problems would worsen, putting its mission and financial solvency in greater peril. The further deterioration of USPS’s financial position since the start of the pandemic makes the need for congressional action even more urgent.

Why GAO Did This Study

USPS plays a critical role in the nation’s communications and commerce. However, USPS’s financial viability is not on a sustainable path and has been on GAO’s High Risk List since 2009. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the role of USPS in the nation’s economy as well as USPS’s financial difficulties. Responding to these concerns, the CARES Act, as amended in late 2020, provided USPS up to $10 billion in additional funding.

The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to report on its monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines changes in USPS’s (1) mail volume, (2) on-time performance, and (3) revenue and expenses from January through December 2020.

GAO analyzed USPS mail volume, on-time performance, revenue, and expense data by month for 2020, and compared these data to similar data for 2019. GAO also reviewed its prior work, including its May 2020 report. That report had three matters for congressional consideration on: (1) determining the level of postal services, (2) the extent to which those services should be financially self-sustaining, and (3) the appropriate institutional structure of USPS. GAO also reviewed reports by USPS and the USPS Inspector General. Finally, GAO interviewed USPS officials, two package delivery companies that compete with USPS, and representatives from four mailing associations whose members send the types of mail with the highest volumes in 2020.

For more information, contact Jill Naamane at (202) 512-2834 or naamanej@gao.gov.

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    What GAO Found In recent years, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has significantly expanded the Veterans Benefits Administration's (VBA) use of contractors to perform disability medical exams instead of relying on Veterans Health Administration (VHA) medical centers. According to VBA officials, VA's policy is to continue using contractors for most exams. GAO previously identified sound practices agencies can use to plan for significant programmatic changes. However, VBA has not applied several of these practices to its plans for allocating workloads among its contractors and VHA medical centers. For example, VBA has not assessed potential risks to capacity and exam quality in allocating the bulk of exams to contractors. Employing such practices could help VBA identify potential risks stemming from this long-term program change and better plan for addressing future workload needs. Percent of Disability Exams Performed by VBA Contractors and by VHA Medical Centers, Fiscal Years 2017-2021 Over time, VA has also permitted contractors to complete exams for more complex disability claims—such as Gulf War Illness—according to VBA officials, but VBA does not conduct targeted reviews specifically to assess the quality of the exam reports completed for these exams. VBA data show that exam reports for selected complex claims were returned to examiners for correction or clarification at about twice the rate that exam reports were returned overall. Disability medical examiners told GAO that these types of exams can be challenging. Without specifically assessing how well contractors perform on exams for complex claims, VBA is missing an opportunity to identify actions that could help ensure veterans receive high quality exams and that exam reports are completed correctly. Why GAO Did This Study This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's March 2021 report, entitled VA Disability Exams: Better Planning Needed as Use of Contracted Examiners Continues to Grow (GAO-21-444T). This testimony also builds upon prior GAO reporting on VBA's contract exam program in October 2018 (GAO-19-13).
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) has a long-standing material weakness related to intradepartmental transactions. Intradepartmental transactions occur when trading partners within the same department engage in business activities—such as the Department of the Army as a seller and the Department of the Navy as a buyer within DOD. As part of the standard process of preparing department-wide financial statements, intradepartmental transaction amounts are eliminated to avoid overstating accounts for DOD. For the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2019, DOD eliminated approximately $451 billion of net intradepartmental activity. Auditors continue to report a material weakness related to DOD's processes for recording and reconciling intradepartmental transaction amounts that are necessary to eliminate the transactions and prepare reliable consolidated financial statements. DOD has identified implementation of the Government Invoicing (G-Invoicing) system as its long-term solution to account for and support its intradepartmental activities. In fiscal year 2020, DOD issued a policy requiring all DOD components to use G-Invoicing's General Terms and Conditions (GT&C) functionality for initiating and approving GT&C agreements—a necessary step for using subsequent G-Invoicing functionalities (see figure). GAO found the use of this functionality varied among selected DOD components because of issues such as inconsistency in DOD policies and numerous changes to G-Invoicing system specifications. If DOD components do not implement the GT&C functionality, there is an increased risk of delay in full implementation of G-Invoicing to help remediate the intradepartmental eliminations material weakness. General Terms and Conditions Agreement Process in Government Invoicing Although DOD has identified G-Invoicing as its long-term solution, GAO found that DOD has not implemented an overall department-wide strategy to address its intradepartmental eliminations material weakness in the short term. Further, GAO found that while DOD issued a department-wide policy in May 2019 with new requirements for reconciling intradepartmental transactions, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service and selected DOD components have not updated their policies or implemented several of the new requirements. Without a short-term strategy that includes identifying the causes of issues and consistently implementing department-wide policies across DOD, DOD's efforts to resolve differences in intradepartmental transaction amounts—including its efforts in the long term—will likely be inefficient and ineffective. Since 1995, GAO has designated DOD financial management as high risk because of pervasive weaknesses in its financial management systems, controls, and reporting. DOD's long-standing intradepartmental eliminations material weakness reflects DOD's inability to adequately record and reconcile its intradepartmental transactions, and has affected DOD's ability to prepare auditable financial statements. GAO was asked to evaluate DOD's process for performing intradepartmental eliminations. This report examines the extent to which DOD has (1) identified and taken steps to address issues related to intradepartmental eliminations and (2) established and implemented policies and procedures related to intradepartmental eliminations. GAO interviewed DOD officials about intradepartmental eliminations processes and reviewed DOD policies and procedures to identify the extent to which procedures have been implemented to record and reconcile intradepartmental transactions. GAO is making five recommendations to DOD, including that DOD should (1) take actions to ensure that its components follow its policy for using G-Invoicing's GT&C functionality and (2) develop short-term solutions that address causes for trading partner differences before G-Invoicing is fully implemented. DOD agreed with all five recommendations and cited actions to address them. For more information, contact Kristen Kociolek at (202) 512-2989 or kociolekk@gao.gov.
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    The overall pay gap between men and women in the federal workforce has narrowed considerably, from 19 cents on the dollar in 1999 to 7 cents in 2017, but the current pay gap is greater for certain groups of women, according to GAO's analysis of data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Two trends help explain why the pay gap has narrowed: (1) men and women have become more similar in measurable factors related to pay, such as occupation; and (2) women have earned slightly higher rates of pay increases than men. In 2017, most of the overall pay gap—or 6 of 7 cents on the dollar—was not explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors (see figure). This unexplained portion of the pay gap may be due to factors not captured in the data GAO analyzed, such as work experience outside the federal government, or factors that cannot be measured, such as discrimination and individual choices. In 2017, the overall and unexplained gaps were greater for certain groups. For example, compared to White men, the unexplained gap was greater for Hispanic/Latina, Black, and American Indian or Alaska Native women than for White and Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander women. Pay Gap between Men and Women in the Federal Workforce, 1999 to 2017 OPM and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have taken steps to analyze data on the pay gap and help agencies address it. From 2014 to 2016, OPM implemented a government-wide strategy to address the pay gap, and officials said their future efforts will include monitoring the pay gap periodically. EEOC annually collects workforce data from agencies and provides related technical assistance, and officials said they plan to expand these efforts. These data include promotions by gender and race and ethnicity, which EEOC and agencies use to identify potential barriers to career advancement, but GAO found these data were not sufficiently complete. Of the 51 data tables GAO requested, 35 were either missing or had at least one incomplete data element. EEOC officials said this is partly due to promotion applicants not being required to provide demographic information. However, EEOC has not fully assessed the reliability of these data and generally does not follow up with agencies about missing data between technical assistance visits. Without taking steps to assess and improve the quality of these data in a timelier manner, EEOC may miss opportunities to ensure equal opportunity for all promotion applicants. As the nation's largest employer, the federal government employed about 2.7 million workers in 2019. Although the pay gap between men and women in the federal workforce is smaller than it is for the entire U.S. workforce and has narrowed over time, studies show that pay disparities continue to exist. GAO was asked to explore the current status of pay equity in the federal workforce. This report examines how the pay gap between men and women in the federal workforce has changed since 1999, and what factors account for any remaining gap; and the extent to which OPM and EEOC have monitored and taken steps to address the pay gap in the federal workforce, including assessing potential disparities in promotions; among other objectives. GAO analyzed OPM's Enterprise Human Resources Integration data on about 2.1 million federal employees from September 1999 to September 2017 (the most recent reliable data available at the time of GAO's review); reviewed federal agency promotion data collected by EEOC for fiscal years 2015 through 2017 (the most recent available data); and interviewed OPM and EEOC officials and reviewed relevant documentation. GAO recommends that EEOC take steps to assess the quality of federal agency promotion data and address missing data with agencies in a timelier manner. EEOC neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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    What GAO Found At its core, information operations (IO) are the integration of information-related capabilities during military operations to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own. (See figure.) For example, in seeking to facilitate safe and orderly humanitarian assistance, the Department of Defense (DOD) would conduct IO by influencing host nation and regional cooperation through the integration of public affairs activities and military information support operations. Information Operations and Selected Information-Related Capabilities GAO found, in 2019, that DOD had made limited progress in implementing the 2016 DOD IO strategy and faced a number of challenges in overseeing the IO enterprise and integrating its IO capabilities. Specifically: In seeking to implement the strategy, DOD had not developed an implementation plan or an investment framework to identify planning priorities to address IO gaps. DOD has established department-wide IO roles and responsibilities and assigned most oversight responsibilities to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. The Under Secretary had exercised some responsibilities, such as establishing an executive steering group. However, the Under Secretary had not fulfilled other IO oversight responsibilities, such as conducting an assessment of needed tasks, workload, and resources. Instead, the Under Secretary delegated these responsibilities to an official whose primary responsibilities are focused on special operations and combatting terrorism. DOD had integrated information-related capabilities in some military operations, but had not conducted a posture review to assess IO challenges. Conducting a comprehensive posture review to fully assess challenges would assist DOD in effectively operating while using information-related capabilities. Why GAO Did This Study U.S. potential adversaries—including near-peer competitors Russia and China—are using information to achieve objectives below the threshold of armed conflict. DOD can use information operations to counter these activities. This testimony summarizes GAO's past work related to DOD's IO capabilities. Specifically, it discusses: (1) DOD's information operation terms and concept, and (2) DOD's actions to implement the 2016 DOD IO strategy and address oversight and integration challenges. This statement is based on GAO's August and October 2019 reports (GAO-19-510C and GAO-20-51SU) and updates conducted in April 2021.
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    In U.S GAO News
    States and the federal government share in financing Medicaid, a health care program for low-income and medically needy individuals. States finance the nonfederal share with state general funds and other sources, such as taxes on health care providers and funds from local governments. GAO's analysis showed a change in how states finance their Medicaid programs. In particular, states relied on provider taxes and local government funds for about 28 percent, or $63 billion, of the estimated $224 billion total nonfederal share of Medicaid payments in state fiscal year 2018—7 percentage points more than state fiscal year 2008. Nonfederal Share of Medicaid Payments from Provider Taxes and Local Government Funds, State Fiscal Years 2008 and 2018 Note: Percentages do not add up due to rounding. Furthermore, GAO estimated that states' reliance on provider taxes and local government funds decreased states' share of net Medicaid payments (total state and federal payments) and effectively increased the federal share of net Medicaid payments by 5 percentage points in state fiscal year 2018. It also resulted in smaller net payments to some providers after the taxes and local government funds they contribute to their payments are taken into account. While net payments are smaller, the federal government's contribution does not change. This effectively shifts responsibility for a larger portion of Medicaid payments to the federal government and away from states. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)—which oversees Medicaid—collects some information on states' sources of funds and payments, but it is not complete, consistent, or sufficiently documented, which hinders the agency's oversight. For example, CMS does not require states to report on the source of the nonfederal share for all payments. Absent complete, consistent, and sufficiently documented information about all Medicaid payments, CMS cannot adequately determine whether payments are consistent with statutory requirements for economy and efficiency, and with permissible financing, such as the categories of services on which provider taxes may be imposed. Medicaid cost $668 billion in fiscal year 2019. GAO has previously reported on concerns about states' use of various funding sources for the nonfederal share. Although such financing arrangements are allowed under certain conditions, they can also result in increasing the share of net costs paid by the federal government and decreasing reliance on state general funds. GAO was asked to review the sources of funds states used for Medicaid and the types of payments made to providers. This report describes states' reliance on provider and local government funds for these arrangements; the estimated effect of these arrangements on the federal share of net Medicaid payments; and the extent to which CMS collects information on these arrangements. To do this work, GAO reviewed CMS information; administered a questionnaire to all state Medicaid agencies; analyzed the estimated effects of reliance on provider and local government funds; and interviewed CMS officials, as well as Medicaid officials in 11 states selected, in part, on Medicaid spending and geographic diversity. The Administrator of CMS should collect and document complete and consistent information about the sources of funding for the nonfederal share of payments to providers. CMS neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendation, but acknowledged the need for additional financing and payment data for Medicaid oversight. For more information, contact Carolyn L. Yocom at (202) 512-7114 or yocomc@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    Based on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data and GAO estimates, most U.S. large commercial jet airplanes are certificated at the minimum required stage 3 noise standards, but nearly all of them are able to meet more stringent noise standards. Sixty-three percent of large commercial airplanes in the United States are certificated as meeting the stage 3 standards; however, 87 percent of them were manufactured with technologies that are able to meet more recent and stringent stage 4 or 5 standards as currently configured, according to FAA's 2017 analysis. By analyzing updated data from airlines and aviation manufacturers, GAO estimated that this proportion is even higher: 96 percent of large commercial airplanes are able to meet stage 4 or 5 standards (see figure). According to FAA officials and aviation stakeholders, the primary reason many large commercial airplanes certificated as stage 3 produce lower than stage 3 noise levels is because engine and airframe technology has outpaced the implementation of noise standards. More recently, some airlines have accelerated retirement of certain airplanes, some of which are certificated as stage 3, due to the decrease in travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For the generally smaller regional commercial jets (i.e., generally with less than 90 seats), 86 percent are able to meet stage 4 or stage 5 standards, according to manufacturers' data. With regard to general aviation (which are used for personal or corporate flights), 73 percent of the jet airplanes in that fleet are able to meet the more stringent stage 4 or 5 standards, according to manufacturers' data. GAO Estimate of The Number of Large Airplanes in the U.S. Commercial Fleet That Are Able to Meet Stage 3 or Stage 4 and 5 Noise Standards, January 2020 According to stakeholders GAO interviewed, a phase-out of jet airplanes that are certificated as meeting stage 3 standards would provide limited noise reduction and limited other benefits, and could be costly and present other challenges. A phase-out could require recertificating the vast majority of stage 3 airplanes to comply with stage 4 or 5 standards. This process could be costly for operators and manufacturers but would provide little reduction in noise. Further, airplanes currently unable to meet more stringent standards would require modifications or face retirement. For older airplanes that could not be recertificated to meet stage 4 or 5 standards, some operators could incur costs for replacement airplanes sooner than originally planned. Although stakeholders indicated that a phase-out would not substantially reduce noise, they identified other limited benefits newer airplanes generate, such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption. Although advances in technology have led to quieter aircraft capable of meeting increasingly stringent noise standards, airport noise remains a concern. FAA regulates aircraft noise by ensuring compliance with relevant noise standards. In 1990, federal law required large jet airplanes to comply with stage 3 noise standards by 1999, leading to a phase-out of the noisiest airplanes (stage 1 and 2 airplanes). Later, federal law required smaller airplanes to comply with stage 3 standards by 2016. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to review a potential phase-out of stage 3 airplanes—the loudest aircraft currently operating in the United States. This report describes (1) the proportion of stage 3 airplanes in the U.S. fleet, and what proportion of these stage 3 airplanes are able to meet more stringent noise standards and (2) selected stakeholders' views on the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of phasing out stage 3 airplanes. GAO reviewed FAA's analysis of December 2017 fleet data, analyzed January 2020 fleet data from select airlines and airframe and engine manufacturers, and interviewed FAA officials. GAO also interviewed a non-generalizable sample of 35 stakeholders, including airlines; airframe and engine manufacturers; airports; and industry associations, selected based on fleet and noise data, stakeholder recommendations, or prior GAO knowledge. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@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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