Foreign Assistance: State Department Should Better Assess Results of Efforts to Improve Financial and Some Program Data

What GAO Found

The Department of State has implemented most of the Foreign Assistance Data Review (FADR) plan to improve the tracking and reporting of its foreign assistance data. According to State officials, they began developing the FADR plan in 2014 and focused on modifying State’s existing agency-wide data systems to improve financial and related programmatic data for foreign assistance. As of December 2020, State had completed most of the activities detailed in the FADR plan, except for some FADR-related training initiatives that will continue in 2021. For example, State created the FADR Data Dictionary, which standardizes foreign assistance budget terminology and definitions across the agency, and added two data fields—benefitting country and program area—to its data systems. Other activities included updating system design; conducting integration testing between source systems and financial systems; and developing training materials.

State’s FADR plan generally or partially addressed key elements of sound planning. GAO evaluated the FADR plan against nine key elements of sound planning it identified as relevant to implementation plans. GAO found that the plan generally addressed four elements and partially addressed five (see figure).

Evaluation of the Department of State’s Foreign Assistance Data Review (FADR) Plan by Key Elements of Sound Planning Identified by GAO

Element

Did the FADR plan address the element?

Purpose and scope

Desired results

Hierarchy of goals and subordinate objectives

Activities to achieve results

Roles and responsibilities

Intra-agency coordination mechanisms

Resources to implement the plan

Milestones and performance indicators

Monitoring and evaluation

Legend: ● Generally addressed ◓Partially addressed ○ Did not address

Source: GAO analysis of Department of State documentation. | GAO-21-373

Since State has nearly completed implementation of its FADR plan, the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) component is the most critical remaining element of the partially addressed elements. GAO found that the M&E component of the plan was not well developed. The plan identifies some performance indicators and monitoring activities, but it does not clearly link those indicators to the desired results. The M&E component also does not identify how State plans to evaluate and use the monitoring data, such as better identification of benefiting country. Nor does it provide information on timeframes associated with the performance targets for the identified indicators. Identifying how the performance indicators link to desired results and the timeframes associated with performance targets, and periodically evaluating its monitoring data would help State assess the plan’s effectiveness.

Why GAO Did This Study

Members of Congress, the State Inspector General, and GAO have raised concerns about State’s ability to adequately track and report its foreign assistance data. These concerns include State’s ability to retrieve timely and accurate data necessary to provide central oversight, meet statutory and regulatory reporting requirements, manage resources strategically, and assess program performance. In response, State began an initiative in 2014 to improve the quality and availability of foreign assistance data. GAO was asked to review State’s plan to improve the tracking and reporting of its foreign assistance data. This report assesses (1) the status of State’s plan to improve the tracking and reporting of its foreign assistance data and (2) the extent to which State’s plan adheres to sound planning practices.

GAO reviewed State documents on the plan to improve the tracking and reporting of its foreign assistance data. GAO reviewed implementation of the State plan against specific milestones in the plan. GAO also evaluated if the plan included key elements for sound management and strategic planning. In addition, GAO interviewed State officials in Washington, D.C.

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    What GAO Found The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 expanded the requirement for agencies to proactively disclose certain records—making the records publicly available without waiting for specific requests. Of the three agencies GAO reviewed—Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—only VHA aligned its policies and procedures with applicable Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) proactive disclosure requirements. Although FAA officials stated that the agency has processes to identify and post proactive disclosures, it has not documented these processes. HUD has FOIA regulations, updated in 2017, that address proactive disclosure, but its standard operating procedures have outdated sections that do not reflect statutory requirements. GAO also found that HUD, VHA, and FAA did not fully comply with the statutory reporting requirements and Department of Justice's (DOJ) guidance to accurately report proactive disclosures. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 requires agencies to report the number of records the FOIA and program offices proactively disclosed each fiscal year. From fiscal years 2017 through 2019, HUD incorrectly reported zero proactive disclosures, while VHA and FAA did not track and report all required categories of proactive disclosures in fiscal year 2019 (see table). Selected Agencies' Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Offices' Reported Proactive Disclosures Fiscal year Federal Aviation Administration Housing and Urban Development Veterans Health Administration 2019 8 0 16 2018 89,687 0 0 2017 90,486 0 58 2016 68,046 12 0 Source: FOIA.gov. | GAO-21-254 DOJ's Office of Information Policy (OIP) is responsible for encouraging agencies' compliance with FOIA, including overseeing the Annual FOIA Report that agencies submit to OIP. OIP told GAO that it asked agencies that report zero proactive disclosures to confirm that this was accurate, but it did not follow up with these agencies. For example, OIP asked HUD officials to confirm that HUD intentionally reported zero proactive disclosures, but did not ask why HUD had zero proactive disclosures. In addition, GAO's review of annual FOIA data found that 25 of 118 agencies reported zero proactive disclosures in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. OIP said that agencies with a low volume of requests may have fewer records to proactively disclose. However, by not following up with agencies that report zero proactive disclosures, OIP is not using an available tool that may strengthen its efforts to encourage agencies to make required disclosures. OIP and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)'s Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) officials stated that making proactive disclosures accessible is a challenge for agencies. To assist agencies in addressing such challenges, OGIS periodically reviews agencies' compliance with FOIA and recently issued a report that included strategies for making proactive disclosures accessible. Why GAO Did This Study FOIA, enacted into law more than 50 years ago, requires federal agencies to provide the public with access to government records and information, including through proactive disclosures. FOIA proactive disclosures enhance transparency by ensuring that certain information about the operations and activities of the government is publicly available. GAO was asked to review federal agencies' efforts to implement FOIA requirements regarding proactive disclosures. This report assesses the extent to which selected agencies (1) aligned their policies and procedures with FOIA requirements, and (2) tracked and reported these disclosures. GAO also assessed the effectiveness of the tools, resources, and oversight provided by DOJ and NARA to address known challenges to agencies' FOIA compliance. GAO selected three agencies—FAA, HUD, and VHA—that reflect, among other things, a range in the agency-reported number of FOIA requests received and records proactively disclosed. GAO reviewed DOJ, NARA, FAA, HUD, and VHA documents and interviewed agency officials.
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  • Financial Assistance: Lessons Learned from CARES Act Loan Program for Aviation and Other Eligible Businesses
    In U.S GAO News
    The CARES Act authorized up to $46 billion for the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to make loans to aviation and other eligible businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 267 applications submitted to the loan program, 35 loans providing $21.9 billion in assistance were executed. Treasury officials do not expect to make any additional loans before Treasury's authority to make loans expires. Applications and Loans for CARES Act Loan Program for Aviation and Other Eligible Businesses, by Category in Statute Type of business Number of applications submitted Assistance sought/available (billions of dollars) Number of loans executed Assistance provided (billions of dollars) Passenger air carrier, repair station operator, and ticket agent 183 35 / 25 23 21.2 Cargo air carrier 10 0.8 / 4 1 0.002 National security business 74 2.6 / 17 11 0.7 Total 267 38.3 / 46 35 21.9 Source: GAO analysis of Department of the Treasury data | GAO-21-198 Note: Pub. L. No. 116-136, § 4003(b)(1)-(3). Participation in the loan program varied across business types due to timing of decisions and other factors, according to stakeholders. Treasury prioritized applications from the largest passenger air carriers and executed loans with seven of them for nearly $20.8 billion. For other applicants, including smaller passenger air carriers and ticket agents, the amount of time Treasury took to evaluate their applications and other challenges affected the number of loans executed, according to selected industry associations. Treasury's authority to make new loans under this program is set to expire in December 2020, and the loan program offers Congress and Treasury lessons for designing and implementing programs of this type in the future. For example: Multiple programs, or multiple paths within a program, may better accommodate businesses of varied types and sizes. It is difficult to implement a program quickly for a wide range of businesses. In addition, a loan program well suited to large, financially sophisticated applicants will not likely be well suited to smaller businesses. Setting and communicating clear program goals could better align lender and borrower expectations. Treasury viewed itself as a lender of last resort but did not state this view in published documents. This omission led to some applicants being surprised by parts of the process, such as when Treasury encouraged over a third of all applicants to apply to another loan program before continuing to pursue a loan from Treasury. Communicating clear timelines for action can also help align lender and borrower expectations. The lack of a published timeline resulted in frustration among some applicants when loans were not made more quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and substantial damage to the global economy, including the aviation sector. U.S. passenger air carriers have lost almost $20 billion and over 47,000 jobs in 2020, with losses forecast to continue into 2021. In March 2020, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance and health care response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including businesses in the aviation sector. The CARES Act contained a provision for GAO to review the loans provided under the Act. This report examines, among other things, eligible businesses' participation in the loan program and lessons learned from the program for Congress and Treasury. GAO reviewed Treasury documents and data on applications received and loans executed; interviewed Treasury officials on the design and implementation of the program; and interviewed eight industry associations that represent the range of businesses eligible for loans, eight passenger air carriers, and other selected applicants to gather their views on the program. GAO will continue to monitor and report on CARES Act assistance to the aviation industry. This oversight includes the loan program and another Treasury program—the Payroll Support Program—that provided assistance to certain aviation businesses to continue paying employee wages, salaries, and benefits. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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  • Higher Education: Children’s Savings Account Programs Can Help Families Build Savings and Envision College
    In U.S GAO News
    Eighty-two Children's Savings Account (CSA) programs operated and had collectively enrolled about 700,000 children in 2019, according to survey data from the nonprofit organization Prosperity Now. These programs—operated by states, cities, and other organizations—use a variety of strategies to enroll families, especially those with lower incomes, and help them save and prepare for college. For example, CSA programs enroll families by partnering with trusted organizations (e.g., schools) or through automatic enrollment, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and CSA experts. In addition, these programs help families build savings once children are enrolled by, for example, providing initial deposits or financial education. While experts GAO interviewed said savings may be modest given lower-income families' and programs' limited resources, CSA programs also aim to help lower-income families prepare for college, such as by increasing financial knowledge. There is evidence that CSA program strategies have positive short-term effects on families, including those with lower incomes. These effects include increased CSA program enrollment and participation, amounts saved, and educational expectations, based on research GAO reviewed (see figure). For example, strategies such as automatically enrolling families and providing financial contributions (e.g., initial deposits) may help CSA programs reach more families and encourage saving. Several studies of a CSA program that used both these strategies found increases in the number of children enrolled and the amount saved by enrolled families. One study found that families who were enrolled for 7 years saved over four times more of their own money, on average, than families who were not enrolled—$261 compared to $59. When including financial contributions from the CSA program, enrolled families had about six times more total savings ($1,851) compared to other families ($323). Enrollment and participation in CSA programs may also increase families' educational expectations for their children. For example, a study found that parents with children enrolled in one CSA program were nearly twice as likely to expect their children to attend college. However, information on college enrollment and other long-term effects on families participating in CSA programs is limited because most of the children have not yet reached college age. Effects of CSA Program Strategies in Three Commonly Assessed Areas Rising college costs have outpaced federal grant aid and placed more of the financial burden on students and their families. CSA programs help families, especially lower-income families, save for college—and other postsecondary education—by providing financial contributions and possibly other supports. A Senate Appropriations Committee report included provisions for GAO to examine various aspects of college savings account programs and their effectiveness. This report examines (1) the number of CSA programs and how they use strategies to help families, especially lower-income families, save and prepare for college; and (2) what is known about the effects of these strategies on families, including lower-income families. GAO reviewed 2016–2019 annual CSA program survey data collected by the nonprofit Prosperity Now. GAO also analyzed CFPB documents and the findings of 33 peer-reviewed studies from 2010 through 2019—and one working paper from 2017—that met GAO's criteria for inclusion, for example, used data from the United States. In addition, GAO interviewed officials from CFPB, the Department of Education, and four organizations that have expertise on these programs. For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.
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    James C. Duff has announced he will retire as the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on Jan. 31. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has appointed Chief Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, of the Eastern District of New York, as his successor, effective Feb. 1.
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    An Austrian man was arrested today in the United Kingdom on criminal charges related to his alleged participation in a conspiracy to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system as part of a scheme to pay bribes around the world and defraud the Brazilian government. 
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