Request for Statements of Interest: FY20 China Programs

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

I. Requested Objectives for Statements of Interest

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) announces a Request for Statements of Interest (RSOI) from organizations interested in submitting Statements of Interest (SOI) for programs that protect and promote human rights in China.

PLEASE NOTE:  DRL strongly encourages applicants to immediately access SAMS Domestic or www.grants.gov in order to obtain a username and password.  For instructions on how to register with SAMS Domestic for the first time, please refer to the Proposal Submission Instructions for Statements of Interest.

The submission of a SOI is the first step in a two-part process.  Applicants must first submit a SOI, which is a concise, 3-page concept note designed to clearly communicate a program idea and its objectives before the development of a full proposal application.  The purpose of the SOI process is to allow applicants the opportunity to submit program ideas for DRL to evaluate prior to requiring the development of full proposal applications.  Upon review of eligible SOIs, DRL will invite selected applicants to expand their ideas into full proposal applications.

With the above in mind, DRL invites organizations to submit a maximum of two (2) proposals for programs in the following categories:

I. FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND EXPRESSION. SOI program concepts should promote freedom of expression, freedom of press, and access to information, and should demonstrate ability to address one or more of the following:

  • Expand Chinese citizens’ awareness of the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship efforts and where to find reliable information;
  • Increase Chinese citizen’s access to and sharing of information about human rights;
  • Improve reliable and independent media and online reporting;
  • Promote government information transparency and accountability at national and local levels;
  • Increase the ability of Chinese citizens and civil society to demand responsive governance institutions.

II. SUPPORT FOR CIVIL SOCIETY, RULE OF LAW, AND LABOR RIGHTS. SOI program concepts should promote democratic norms and basic human rights in China and should demonstrate ability to address one or more of the following:

  • Improve rights awareness and access to justice for Chinese citizens;
  • Strengthen and institutionalize citizen participation in government policy formation and decision-making at all levels of government;
  • Increase the ability of rights-focused civil society groups to work together across sectors to advocate for the rights of the groups they represent;
  • Encourage the promotion of government and societal respect for freedom of religion or belief;
  • Promote internationally recognized labor rights and calls for improved working conditions, including at the enterprise and/or industry sector level;
  • Engage on rights-focused issues of broad concern to the Chinese public, including environmental issues, food safety, discrimination, and other such cross-cutting issues.

Strong preference will be given to SOI proposals that:

  • Are innovative, adaptive, and responsive to emerging trends in Chinese society;
  • Clearly demonstrate a plan to leverage (through in-house or external expertise) technological tools and traditional/social media platforms to maximize project reach and impact.

All SOI proposals must:

  • Clearly indicate which category the SOI falls under;
  • Include a brief theory of change that clearly outlines how project activities support project outcomes and objectives. Applicants are encouraged to review DRL’s Guide to Program Monitoring and Evaluation and Sample Logic Model Template.  Please note that due to the three-page limit, a full logic model is not required at the SOI stage – a brief paragraph outlining the project’s theory of change is sufficient;
  • Include a brief feasibility analysis, including assessing operating environment risk and potential mitigation measures;
  • Demonstrate broad impact (i.e. beyond a small set of participants).

Projects should aim to have impact that leads to democratic reforms, and should have the potential for sustainability beyond DRL resources.  DRL’s preference is to avoid duplicating past efforts by supporting new and creative approaches.  This does not exclude from consideration projects that improve upon or expand existing successful projects in a new and complementary way.

To maximize the impact and sustainability of the award(s) that result(s) from this SOI/NOFO, DRL reserves the right to execute a non-competitive continuation amendment(s).  Any non-competitive continuation is contingent on performance and availability of funds.  A non-competitive continuation is not guaranteed; the Department of State reserves the right to exercise or not exercise the option to issue non-competitive continuation amendment(s).

Activities that are not typically considered competitive include, but are not limited to:

  • The provision of large amounts of humanitarian assistance;
  • English language instruction;
  • Development of high-tech computer or communications software and/or hardware;
  • Purely academic exchanges or fellowships;
  • External exchanges or fellowships lasting longer than six months;
  • Off-shore activities that are not clearly linked to in-country initiatives and impact or are not necessary due to security concerns;
  • Theoretical explorations of human rights or democracy issues, including projects aimed primarily at research and evaluation that do not incorporate training or capacity-building for local civil society;
  • Micro-loans or similar small business development initiatives;
  • Initiatives directed towards a diaspora community rather than current residents of targeted countries.

II. Eligibility Information

Organizations submitting SOIs must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a U.S.- or foreign-based non-profit/non-governmental organization (NGO), or a public international organization; or
  • Be a private, public, or state institution of higher education; or
  • Be a for-profit organization or business (noting there are restrictions on payment of fees and/or profits under grants and cooperative agreements, including those outlined in 48 CFR 30, “Cost Accounting Standards Administration”, and 48 CFR 31, “Contract Cost Principles and Procedures”); and
  • Have existing, or the capacity to develop, active partnerships with thematic or in-country partners, entities, and relevant stakeholders including private sector partner  and NGOs; and
  • Have demonstrable experience administering successful and preferably similar programs. DRL reserves the right to request additional background information on organizations that do not have previous experience administering federal awards.  These applicants may be subject to limited funding on a pilot basis.

Applicants may form consortia and submit a combined SOI.  However, one organization should be designated as the lead applicant with the other members as sub-award partners.  Organizations may submit up to two (2) Statements of Interest.

DRL’s preference is to work with non-profit entities; however, there may be occasions when a for-profit entity is best suited.  For-profit entities should be aware that its application may be subject to additional review following the panel selection process, and that the Department of State generally prohibits profit under its assistance awards to for-profit or commercial organizations.  Profit is defined as any amount in excess of allowable direct and indirect costs.  The allowability of costs incurred by commercial organizations is determined in accordance with the provisions of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) at 48 CFR 30, Cost Accounting Standards Administration, and 48 CFR 31 Contract Cost Principles and Procedures.  Program income earned by the recipient must be deducted from the program’s total allowable costs in determining the net allowable costs on which the federal share of costs is based.

DRL is committed to an anti-discrimination policy in all of its programs and activities.  DRL welcomes SOI submissions irrespective of race, ethnicity, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or other status.

No entity listed on the Excluded Parties List System in the System for Award Management (SAM) is eligible for any assistance or can participate in any activities under an award in accordance with the OMB guidelines at 2 CFR 180 that implement Executive Orders 12549 (3 CFR 1986 Comp., p. 189) and 12689 (3 CFR1989 Comp., p. 235), “Debarment and Suspension.”    Additionally, no entity listed on the EPLS can participate in any activities under an award.  All applicants are strongly encouraged to review the EPLS in SAM to ensure that no ineligible entity is included.

Organizations are not required to have a valid Unique Entity Identifier (UEI) number—formerly referred to as a DUNS (Data Universal Numbering System) number—and an active SAM.gov registration to apply for this solicitation through SAMS Domestic.  However, if a SOI is approved, these will need to be obtained before an organization is able to submit a full application.  Therefore, we recommend starting the process of obtaining a SAM.gov registration as soon as possible.  Please note that there is no cost associated with UEI or SAM.gov registration.

III. Application Requirements, Deadlines, and Technical Eligibility

All SOIs must conform to DRL’s posted Proposal Submission Instructions (PSI) for Statements of Interest, as updated in September 2018.

Complete SOI submissions must include the following:

  1. Completed and signed SF-424 and SF424B, as directed on SAMS Domestic or Grants.gov (please refer to DRL’s PSI for SOIs for guidance on completing the SF-424); and,
  2. Program Statement (not to exceed three pages in Microsoft Word) that includes
    1. A table listing:
      1. Name of the organization;
      2. The target country/countries;
      3. The total amount of funding requested from DRL, total amount of cost-share (if any), and total program amount (DRL funds + cost-share); and,
      4. Program length;
    2. A synopsis of the program, including a brief statement on how the program will have a demonstrated impact and engage relevant stakeholders. The SOI should identify local partners as appropriate;
    3. A concise breakdown explicitly identifying the program’s objectives and the activities and expected results that contribute to each objective; and,
    4. A brief description of the applicant(s) that demonstrates the applicant(s) expertise and capacity to implement the program and manage a U.S. government award.

To support direct and indirect costs required for implementation, the Bureau anticipates making awards in amounts of $750,000 to $1,500,000 for one to three year programs.  SOIs that request less than the award floor or more than the award ceiling will be deemed technically ineligible.

Technically eligible SOIs are those which:

  • Arrive electronically via SAMS Domestic or Grants.gov by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, December 2, 2020 for the announcement titled “Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Request for Statements of Interest: FY20 China Programs,” funding opportunity number SFOP0007347;
  • Are written in English;
  • Heed all instructions and do not violate any of the guidelines stated in this solicitation and the PSI for Statements of Interest.

For all SOI documents please ensure:

  • All pages are numbered;
  • All documents are formatted to 8 ½ x 11 paper; and,
  • All documents are single-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font, with 1-inch margins. Captions and footnotes may be 10-point Times New Roman font.  Font sizes in charts and tables can be reformatted to fit within one page width.

Grants.gov and SAMS Domestic automatically log the date and time a submission is made, and the Department of State will use this information to determine whether it has been submitted on time.  Late submissions are neither reviewed nor considered unless the DRL point of contact listed in section VI is contacted prior to the deadline and is provided with evidence of a system error caused by www.grants.gov or SAMS Domestic (https://mygrants.servicenowservices.com) that is outside of the applicant’s control and is the sole reason for a late submission.  Applicants should not expect a notification upon DRL receiving their SOI.  It is the sole responsibility of the applicant to ensure that all material submitted in the SOI package is complete, accurate, and current.  DRL will not accept SOIs submitted via email, fax, the postal system, delivery companies, or couriers.  DRL strongly encourages all applicants to submit SOIs before the due date of December 2, 2020 to ensure that the SOI has been received and is complete.

IV. Review and Selection Process

The Department’s Office of Acquisitions Management (AQM) will determine technical eligibility for all SOI submissions.  All technically eligible SOIs will then be reviewed against the same four criteria by a DRL Review Panel: quality of program idea, inclusivity of marginalized populations, program planning, and ability to achieve objectives/institutional capacity.  Additionally, the Panel will evaluate how the SOI meets the solicitation request, U.S. foreign policy goals, and DRL’s overall priority needs.  Panelists review each SOI individually against the evaluation criteria, not against competing SOIs.  To ensure all SOIs receive a balanced evaluation, the DRL Review Panel will review the first page of the SOI up to the page limit and no further.  All Panelists must sign non-disclosure agreements and conflict of interest agreements.

In most cases, the DRL Review Panel includes representatives from DRL policy and program offices.  Once a SOI is approved, selected applicants will be invited to submit full proposal applications based on their SOIs.  Unless directed otherwise by the organization, DRL may also refer SOIs for possible consideration in other U.S. government related funding opportunities.

The Panel may provide conditions and/or recommendations on SOIs to enhance the proposed program, which must be addressed by the organization in the full proposal application.  To ensure effective use of limited DRL funds, conditions and recommendations may include requests to increase, decrease, clarify, and/or justify costs and program activities.

DRL’s Front Office reserves the right to make a final determination regarding all funding matters, pending funding availability.

Review Criteria

Quality of Program Idea
SOIs should be responsive to the program framework and policy objectives identified in the country/regional context, and should exhibit originality, substance, precision, and relevance to DRL’s mission of promoting human rights and democracy.  Projects should have the potential to have an immediate impact leading to long-term sustainable reforms. DRL prefers new approaches that do not duplicate efforts by other entities.  This does not exclude from consideration projects that improve upon or expand existing successful projects in a new and complementary way.  In countries where similar activities are already taking place, an explanation should be provided as to how new activities will not duplicate or merely add to existing activities and how these efforts will be coordinated.  Proposals that promote creative approaches to recognized ongoing challenges are highly encouraged.  DRL prioritizes project proposals with inclusive approaches for advancing these rights.

Addressing Barriers to Equal Participation
DRL strives to ensure its projects advance the rights and uphold the dignity of all persons. As the USG’s lead bureau dedicated to promoting democratic governance, DRL requests a programming approach dedicated to strengthening inclusive societies as a necessary pillar of strong democracies.  Violence targeting any members of society undermines collective security and threatens democracy. DRL supports program models that assess and address the barriers to access created by violence and discrimination targeting individuals and groups based on their religion, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Applicants should describe how programming affects all of its beneficiaries, including support that specifically targets communities under threat of violence and discrimination.  This approach should be an integral part of both the concept and explicit design of all proposed project activities and objectives. Strong proposals will provide specific analysis, measures, and corresponding targets as appropriate.  Stakeholders shall identify the difference between opportunities and barriers to access and design programs that do not perpetuate these inequalities but rather enhance programmatic impact by including all people in society. The goal of this approach is to bring communities and those in power together in support of stable and secure societies.

Program Planning
A strong SOI will include a clear articulation of how the proposed program activities and expected results (both outputs and outcomes) contribute to specific program objectives and the overall program goal.  Objectives should be ambitious, yet measurable, results-focused, and achievable in a reasonable time frame. 

Ability to Achieve Objectives/Institutional Capacity
SOIs should address how the program will engage relevant stakeholders and should identify local partners as appropriate.  If local partners are identified, applicants should describe the division of labor among the applicant and any local partners.  SOIs should demonstrate the organization’s expertise and previous experience in administering programs, preferably similar programs targeting the requested program area or similarly challenging environments.

For additional guidance, please see DRL’s posted Proposal Submission Instructions (PSI) for Statements of Interest, as updated in September 2018, available at https://www.state.gov/key-topics-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/open-solicitations-and-proposal-submission-instructions/open-solicitations-and-proposal-submission-instructions/proposal-submission-instructions-psi-for-statements-of-interest-updated-september-2018/.

V. Additional Information

DRL will not consider SOIs that reflect any type of support for any member, affiliate, or representative of a designated terrorist organization.

DRL may ask successful applicant(s) to incorporate coordination of an implementer and stakeholder meeting into the Scope of Work of the final project.  DRL will discuss this possibility with particular applicant(s) during the proposal negotiation phase.

Project activities that directly benefit foreign militaries or paramilitary groups or individuals will not be considered for DRL funding given purpose limitations on funding.

Restrictions may apply to any proposed assistance to police or other law enforcement.  Among these, pursuant to section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended (FAA), no assistance may be furnished to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country when there is credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.  In accordance with the requirements of section 620M of the FAA, also known as the Leahy law, program beneficiaries or participants from a foreign government’s security forces may need to be vetted by the Department before the provision of any assistance.

Organizations should be aware that DRL understands that some information contained in SOIs may be considered sensitive or proprietary and will make appropriate efforts to protect such information.  However, organizations are advised that DRL cannot guarantee that such information will not be disclosed, including pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or other similar statutes.

Organizations should also be aware that if ultimately selected for an award, the Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards set forth in 2 CFR Chapter 200 (Sub-Chapters A through F) shall apply to all non-Federal entities, except for assistance awards to Individuals and Foreign Public Entities.  Please note that as of December 26, 2014, 2 CFR 200 (Sub-Chapters A through E) now applies to foreign organizations, and Sub-Chapters A through D shall apply to all for-profit entities.  The applicant/recipient of the award and any sub-recipient under the award must comply with all applicable terms and conditions, in addition to the assurance and certifications made part of the Notice of Award.  The Department’s Standard Terms and Conditions can be viewed on DRL’s Resources page at: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/p/c72333.htm.

The information in this solicitation and DRL’s PSI for SOIs, as updated in September 2018, is binding and may not be modified by any DRL representative.  Explanatory information provided by DRL that contradicts this language will not be binding.  Issuance of the solicitation and negotiation of SOIs or applications does not constitute an award commitment on the part of the U.S. government.  DRL reserves the right to reduce, revise, or increase proposal budgets in accordance with the needs of the program evaluation requirements.

This solicitation will appear on www.grants.gov, SAMS Domestic (https://mygrants.servicenowservices.com) and DRL’s website https://www.state.gov/statements-of-interest-requests-for-proposals-and-notices-of-funding-opportunity/.

Background Information on DRL and DRL Funding
DRL has the mission of promoting democracy and protecting human rights globally.  DRL supports programs that uphold democratic principles, support and strengthen democratic institutions, promote human rights, prevent atrocities, combat and prevent violent extremism, and build civil society around the world.  DRL typically focuses its work in countries with egregious human rights violations, where democracy and human rights advocates are under pressure, and where governments are undemocratic or in transition.

Additional background information on DRL and the human rights report can be found on https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/

VI. Contact Information

SAMS Domestic Help Desk:
For assistance with SAMS Domestic accounts and technical issues related to the system, please contact the ILMS help desk by phone at 1-888-313-4567 (toll charges for international callers) or through the Self Service online portal that can be accessed from https://afsitsm.servicenowservices.com/ilms/. Customer Support is available 24/7/365.

Grants.gov Helpdesk:
For assistance with Grants.gov accounts and technical issues related to using the system, please call the Contact Center at 1-800-518-4726 or email support@grants.gov.  The Contact Center is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except federal holidays.

See https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/snow-dismissal-procedures/federal-holidays/  for a list of federal holidays.

For technical questions related to this solicitation, please contact DRL-ChinaProgramInfo@state.gov.

With the exception of technical submission questions, during the solicitation period U.S. Department of State staff in Washington and overseas shall not discuss this competition until the entire review process has been completed and rejection and approval letters have been transmitted.

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    What GAO Found Federal economic development programs and state business incentives approach economic development in different ways. In GAO's review of six large state business incentive packages ($50 million or more) in four states, federal economic development program funds were not directly used. Reasons for limited use could include differences in purposes and goals, and limitations on how federal funds can be used. For example, the goals of economic development programs administered by the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration (EDA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) do not completely align with the goals of state business incentives, the latter of which include attracting and retaining individual businesses. Although these incentive packages were not funded with federal economic development program funds, some of the businesses that received a large incentive package were highlighted in federal strategic plans as opportunities for investment and job growth in the local economy. The economic development programs of EDA, HUD, and USDA each encourage or require state and local communities to conduct strategic planning, which includes obtaining input from a range of public and private stakeholders and identifying ways to leverage other available resources, such as federal and state funding. Recognizing the similarities in what they require of grantees, in 2016, EDA and HUD entered into an interagency agreement to align planning requirements under their programs. The agencies implemented certain aspects of the agreement, such as issuing joint guidance to applicants. However, they have not implemented selected leading practices for effective interagency collaboration: Updating written agreements: EDA and HUD have not regularly monitored or updated their interagency agreement to reflect changing priorities of either agency. Officials stated the agencies have prioritized other areas for coordination, such as disaster relief, instead of state and local strategic planning processes. Including relevant participants: EDA and HUD have made limited efforts to involve USDA in their collaborative efforts. USDA also encourages strategic planning for local communities. Monitoring progress towards outcomes: EDA and HUD's agreement identifies specific outcomes, including effectively aligning federal, state, and local resources for economic development. However, the agencies have not monitored progress or addressed any related challenges in meeting the stated outcomes of the collaboration. By incorporating selected leading practices for effective collaboration, EDA and HUD can help grantees and local communities better manage fragmented efforts to meet federal requirements for strategic planning and more effectively align federal and state resources. Why GAO Did This Study States spend billions of dollars annually in business incentives to attract and retain individual businesses or industries. EDA, HUD, and USDA administer programs that support states' economic development goals and encourage strategic planning. In previous reports, we have identified concerns related to fragmentation in these agencies' efforts to collaborate on economic development programs with each other. GAO was asked to review issues related to these state and federal economic development efforts. This report examines the use of federal economic development programs to support state business incentives and how selected federal agencies collaborate on these programs, among other issues. GAO reviewed information on federal economic development programs and business incentives in four states (selected because the states offer incentives of $50 million or more and vary geographically). GAO interviewed federal and state agency officials and policy organizations.
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    What GAO Found The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Department of the Treasury (Treasury), among others, continue to provide financial assistance to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. FEMA reported obligating over $79 billion from its Disaster Relief Fund to respond to COVID-19. Through several programs, FEMA is providing help to individuals with funeral costs; reimbursing communities for vaccine distribution; and funding federal agencies' efforts to support communities, including National Guard deployments. DOT and Treasury continue to make available the over $200 billion appropriated by COVID-19 relief laws for financial assistance to the transportation sector, including to air carriers, airports and airport tenants, Amtrak, and transit agencies. Through several financial assistance programs, GAO's work has found DOT and Treasury have provided critical support to the transportation sector during a period of sharp declines in travel demand and uncertainty about the pace and nature of the recovery. Depending on the program, financial assistance has reportedly enabled recipients to avoid layoffs, maintain service, and ramp up operations as demand for their services improves. Based on GAO's prior work examining responses to public health and fiscal emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic, GAO has (1) identified key lessons learned that could improve the federal response to emergencies, and (2) made several related recommendations, including ones that highlight the importance of applying these lessons learned. For example, DOT has not developed a national aviation preparedness plan to coordinate, establish, and define roles and responsibilities for communicable diseases across the federal government. GAO recommended in 2015 that DOT work with federal partners to develop such a plan, but it has not taken any action. Without such a plan, the U.S. is less prepared to respond to future communicable disease events. In addition, FEMA has faced challenges collecting and analyzing data on requests for supplies, such as personal protective equipment, made through the federal government. In 2020, GAO recommended that FEMA work with relevant stakeholders to develop an interim solution to help states track the status of their supply requests and plan for supply needs. FEMA has not taken action on this recommendation, and until the agency develops a solution, states, tribes, and territories will likely continue to face challenges that hamper the effectiveness of their COVID-19 response. Why GAO Did This Study In response to the public health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress provided billions of dollars across a range of agencies to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. This included billions to: FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to provide assistance to individuals as well as state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and DOT and Treasury to provide financial assistance to the transportation sector. This statement describes: (1) the federal response and selected relief programs administered by FEMA, DOT, and Treasury and (2) lessons learned based on GAO's reviews of selected COVID-19 relief programs, including related recommendations and their implementation status. This statement is based on GAO's body of work on the CARES Act issued from June 2020 through July 2021.To update this information, GAO reviewed agency documentation; and interviewed agency officials, industry associations, and selected businesses that applied to these programs on the latest implementation efforts.
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) has been unable to comprehensively identify private security contractor (PSC) contracts and personnel supporting contingency, humanitarian, peace-keeping, or other similar operations, limiting DOD's ability to readily and accurately identify the use of PSCs. DOD uses PSCs, which include companies and their personnel, hired to provide security services for the U.S. government. However, neither DOD nor GAO was able to use DOD's three PSC data sources to readily determine the universe of PSCs, the type of operation or exercise they support, or their functions, activities, and armed or unarmed status. For example, queries of DOD databases using the term “security guard” to identify PSC personnel excluded eight other job titles that may also perform private security functions. DOD has not comprehensively determined and communicated the contracted activities that fall within its definition of private security functions. Further, DOD does not have a means of readily identifying the contracts and personnel performing those activities in data sources. Without better identifying and tracking its PSC contracts and personnel, DOD will not be able to accurately determine its use of PSCs. Since 2009, DOD has established an oversight framework for its use of PSC contracts, but has not fully monitored the implementation of this framework. DOD's framework distributes oversight functions across the department as well as to organizations outside the department (see fig.). Roles and Functions of Entities to Oversee DOD's Use of Private Security Contractor (PSC) Contracts and Personnel However, DOD has not fully monitored whether and how it and the other entities have carried out their PSC oversight roles and functions. For example, GAO reviewed data for deployed contractor personnel with the job title of “security guard” and found that about 12 percent of those individuals were employed by companies not on a DOD list of certified PSC companies. Independent, third-party certification is a key oversight mechanism DOD relies on to ensure it contracts with companies that use approved personnel hiring, screening, training, and reporting practices. DOD lacks a single, senior-level position assigned to fully monitor whether DOD and various entities are carrying out their respective PSC oversight roles and functions. Without assigning this position, DOD increases the risk of incidents that its framework aims to prevent.  Why GAO Did This Study During Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001–2014 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003–2011, DOD significantly increased its use of PSCs. In 2008, the Swiss Government and the Red Cross issued the Montreux Document, which generally reaffirmed the obligation nations have to ensure that their PSCs respect international humanitarian law. PSCs supporting DOD have faced international attention resulting from incidents allegedly involving their personnel. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's use of PSCs. GAO assessed the extent to which DOD has (1) identified PSC contracts and personnel used to support contingency operations and (2) established a framework to oversee the department's use of PSC contracts. GAO analyzed DOD contract and personnel data for PSCs from 2009 through 2019, reviewed DOD guidance on PSC use, and conducted interviews with DOD officials and representatives from standards organizations.
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    What GAO Found In March 2021, GAO issued its high-risk series update and emphasized that federal agencies' needed to implement numerous critical actions to strengthen the nation's cybersecurity and information technology (IT) management efforts. In the update, GAO reiterated the importance of agencies addressing four major cybersecurity challenges facing the nation: (1) establishing a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy and performing effective oversight, (2) securing federal systems and information, (3) protecting cyber critical infrastructure, and (4) protecting privacy and sensitive data. Overall, the federal government has to move with a greater sense of urgency to fully address key cybersecurity challenges. In particular: Develop and execute a more comprehensive federal strategy for national cybersecurity and global cyberspace . In September 2020, GAO reported that the White House's national cyber strategy and associated implementation plan addressed some, but not all, of the desirable characteristics of national strategies, such as goals and resources needed. Mitigate global supply chain risks . GAO reported in December 2020 that few of the 23 civilian federal agencies it reviewed implemented foundational practices for managing information and communication technology supply chain risks. Address weaknesses in federal agencies information security programs. GAO reported in July 2019 that 23 agencies almost always designated a risk executive, but had not fully incorporated other key risk management practices, such as establishing a process for assessing agency-wide cybersecurity risks. In its March update, GAO also stressed the importance of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and federal agencies fully implementing critical actions recommended to improve the management of IT to better manage tens of billions of dollars in IT investments. GAO emphasized, for example, that OMB had demonstrated its leadership commitment to improving IT management, but sustaining this commitment was critically important; twenty-one of 24 federal agencies had not yet implemented recommendations to fully address the role of Chief Information Officers, including enhancing their authorities; OMB and agencies needed to address modernization challenges and workforce planning weaknesses; and agencies could take further action to reduce duplicative IT contracts and reduce the risk of wasteful spending. Until OMB and federal agencies take critical actions to strengthen efforts to address these important high-risk areas, longstanding and pervasive weaknesses will likely continue to jeopardize the nation's cybersecurity and management of IT. Why GAO Did This Study The nation's critical infrastructures and federal agencies are dependent on IT systems and electronic data to carry out operations and to process, maintain, and report essential information. Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on cybersecurity and IT investments. GAO has long stressed the continuing and urgent need for effective cybersecurity, as underscored by recent events that have illustrated persistent and evermore sophisticated cyber threats and incidents. Moreover, many IT investments have failed, performed poorly, or suffered from ineffective management. Accordingly, GAO has included information security on its high-risk list since 1997 and added improving the management of IT acquisitions and operations in 2015. In its March 2021 high-risk series update, GAO reported that significant attention was needed in both of these important areas. GAO was asked to testify on federal agencies' efforts to address cybersecurity and the management of IT. For this testimony, GAO relied on selected products it previously issued.
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  • Medicare Advantage: Beneficiary Disenrollments to Fee-for-Service in Last Year of Life Increase Medicare Spending
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Under Medicare Advantage (MA), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) contracts with private MA plans to provide health care coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. MA beneficiaries in the last year of life disenrolled to join Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) at more than twice the rate of all other MA beneficiaries, GAO's analysis found. MA plans are prohibited from limiting coverage based on beneficiary health status, and disproportionate disenrollment by MA beneficiaries in the last of year life may indicate potential issues with their care. Stakeholders told GAO that, among other reasons, beneficiaries in the last of year life may disenroll because of potential limitations accessing specialized care under MA. While CMS monitors MA disenrollments, the agency does not specifically review disenrollments by beneficiaries in the last year of life. Doing so could help CMS better ensure the care provided to these beneficiaries. Medicare Advantage Beneficiary Disenrollments to Join Fee-for-Service, 2016-2017 Beneficiaries in the last year of life who disenrolled from MA to join FFS increased Medicare costs as they moved from MA's fixed payment arrangement to FFS, where payments are based on the amount and cost of services provided. GAO's analysis shows that FFS payments for such beneficiaries who disenrolled in 2016 were $422 million higher than their estimated MA payments had they remained in MA, and were $490 million higher for those that disenrolled in 2017. Estimated Medicare Advantage Payments for Beneficiaries in Last Year of Life that Disenrolled Compared to Fee-for-Service Payments, 2016-2017 Why GAO Did This Study In contrast to Medicare FFS, which pays providers for claims for services, CMS pays MA plans a fixed monthly amount per beneficiary to provide health care coverage. For beneficiaries with higher expected health care costs, MA payments are increased. In 2019, CMS paid MA plans about $274 billion to cover about 22 million beneficiaries. Prior GAO and other studies have shown that beneficiaries in poorer health are more likely to disenroll from MA to join FFS, which may indicate that they encountered issues with their care under MA. Beneficiaries in the last year of life are generally in poorer health and often require high-cost care. GAO was asked to review disenrollment by MA beneficiaries in the last year of life. In this report, GAO examined (1) disenrollments from MA to join FFS by beneficiaries in the last year of life, and CMS's associated monitoring; and (2) the costs of such disenrollments to Medicare. GAO analyzed CMS disenrollment and mortality data for 2015 through 2018—the most current data at the time of the analysis—to examine the extent of MA beneficiary disenrollment in the last year of life. To estimate the costs of disenrollment, GAO used CMS data to estimate payments for disenrolled beneficiaries had they remained in MA, and compared those estimates against those beneficiaries' actual FFS costs.
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  • Veterans with Disabilities: VA Could Better Inform Veterans with Disabilities about Their Education Benefit Options
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Most school and veteran service organization (VSO) officials GAO interviewed stated that when given the choice between the Post 9/11 GI Bill (GI Bill) and the Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E) program, veterans with disabilities will base their choice on which program best suits their unique goals, preferences, and circumstances. For example, certain veterans may prefer the GI Bill's flexibility to independently select courses of study, whereas others may prefer to have the assistance of a counselor to select a course of study as part of an employment plan, as provided under VR&E. However, most officials GAO interviewed said veterans with disabilities often use the GI Bill for education benefits without knowing that the VR&E program exists, or that it can pay for education, provide assistive equipment for their disability, or offer unique benefits of working with a counselor. Selected Comments Regarding the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Veteran Readiness & Employment Programs “Had I known about VR&E I would have [used it.]” -Veteran with disabilities “I often think of VR&E as sort of a hidden program when it comes to education benefits.” -VSO official ”Veterans with disabilities are often not aware of the differences between the two programs.” -School official Source: GAO survey of veterans and GAO interviews with school and VSO officials | GAO-21-450 VA provides information about education benefits to veterans with disabilities through various methods, including in-person communication, online materials, and written communications. However, on the agency website, VA.gov, few webpages devoted to VR&E explicitly mention that it can help pay for a college degree. In addition, the letters that VA sends to veterans when they receive their disability rating do not specifically mention that VR&E can cover education costs for a college degree. VA's online GI Bill Comparison Tool allows veterans to learn more about the tuition amounts each program will cover for certain schools, but it does not inform veterans on the key differences in program features across the programs. Most school and VSO officials GAO interviewed said VA's efforts do not adequately inform veterans with disabilities about their potential education benefit options, as evidenced by the number of veterans with disabilities they encounter who are unaware that VR&E exists or who do not fully understand the benefits VR&E can provide. Including more information about how VR&E can help veterans pay for higher education, and facilitating direct comparison between the features of the GI Bill and VR&E, would help better position veterans with disabilities to choose the program that best meets their needs. Why GAO Did This Study VA offers education benefits to veterans with disabilities through the GI Bill, VA's largest education program, and VR&E, which helps veterans with service-connected disabilities re-enter the workforce. Each offers distinct features that may better serve veterans depending on their individual circumstances. However, veterans with disabilities may not know that VR&E can help pay for education as part of its employment services. GAO was asked to what extent eligible veterans are aware of the comparative features of the programs. This report examines (1) the reported factors that influence whether veterans with disabilities select the Post-9/11 GI Bill or VR&E, and (2) how VA informs veterans with disabilities about the education benefits available to them from each program, and the effectiveness of those efforts. For both programs, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws; analyzed participant data; conducted semi-structured interviews with officials from schools and VSOs selected for their depth of knowledge about veteran affairs, and reviewed relevant VA informational materials.
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  • COVID-19 Contracting: Contractor Paid Leave Reimbursements Could Provide Lessons Learned for Future Emergency Responses
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found To help government contractors keep their workforce in a ready state during the COVID-19 pandemic, section 3610 of the CARES Act generally authorized government agencies to reimburse contractors for paid leave provided to contractor personnel and subcontractors during the national emergency. Section 3610 did not appropriate specific funding for this purpose. The four agencies GAO reviewed—the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security, and NASA—reported use of section 3610 authority totaling at least $882.8 million over 14 months. The extent to which the agencies used the authority varied, from $1.4 million at Homeland Security to $760.7 million at Energy. Further, Defense officials estimated that defense contractors have more than $4 billion in paid leave costs that are potentially eligible for reimbursement under section 3610. Defense officials also noted, however, that the department does not plan to reimburse this full amount using existing funding. Agencies also based their reimbursement decisions on the nature of the work performed by contractors, such as whether telework was an option. Twelve out of the 15 contractors GAO interviewed reported that paid leave reimbursement had a great or moderate effect on their ability to retain employees (see figure), in particular those with specialized skills or clearances. Selected Contractors' Views on the Effect of Paid Leave Reimbursement on Workforce Retention Given the urgency of the pandemic, agencies prioritized quick implementation of section 3610 over a more deliberative process, resulting in variations such as how agencies tracked use of the authority. Officials from all four agencies said that they either have captured or intend to capture lessons learned from implementing section 3610 and are willing to share these with other federal agencies. However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—which coordinates government-wide contracting policy—has not collected and shared lessons learned. With coordination from OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the government could seize an opportunity to enhance implementation of paid leave reimbursement provisions that may be enacted as part of rapid federal responses to future emergencies. Why GAO Did This Study In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance for those affected by COVID-19. Section 3610 of the CARES Act enables agencies, at their discretion, to reimburse contractors for paid leave provided to their employees and subcontractors who are unable to access work sites due to facility closures or other restrictions, and whose duties cannot be performed remotely during the pandemic. The CARES Act also includes a provision for GAO to review federal contracting pursuant to authorities provided in the Act. In September 2020, GAO found that agencies had not made much use of section 3610 authority as of July 2020, and expectations of future use varied. This report (1) examines how selected federal agencies have used section 3610 authority and (2) presents selected contractors' perspectives on COVID-19 paid leave reimbursement. GAO reviewed guidance and data and interviewed cognizant officials from four agencies with contract obligations greater than $10 billion in fiscal year 2019. GAO also selected a non-generalizable sample of 15 contractors that received or requested section 3610 reimbursements from one or more of the selected agencies and conducted semi-structured interviews of contractor representatives.
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  • COVID-19: VA Should Assess Its Oversight of Infection Prevention and Control in Community Living Centers
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) took steps—such as issuing guidance and trainings—to support the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Community Living Centers (CLC), which are VA-owned and -operated nursing homes. This guidance focused on, for example, limiting CLC entry and testing residents and staff for COVID-19, while the trainings were intended to prepare staff for, among other things, a surge in cases. However, the agency conducted limited oversight of infection prevention and control in these facilities during the first year of the pandemic, from March 2020 through February 2021. In particular, the agency suspended annual in-person inspections of CLCs before resuming them virtually in February 2021. The agency also required that CLCs conduct a one-time self-assessment of their infection prevention and control practices but did not review the results in a timely manner to make more immediate improvements. VA officials acknowledged these shortcomings as the agency responded in real time to the rapidly evolving pandemic. As VA has described this time as a “learning period,” it could benefit from assessing its decisions and actions related to oversight of infection prevention and control during the pandemic to identify any lessons learned. Such an assessment would align with VA's plans to assess and report on the agency's overall response to the pandemic as well as its strategic goal to promote continuous quality improvement in CLCs. Results from such an assessment—which could look at both successes and missed opportunities—could help VA better prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks in CLCs. Why GAO Did This Study Close to 8,000 veterans per day received nursing home care provided by VA in CLCs in fiscal year 2020. COVID-19 has posed significant risks to nursing home residents and staff, as residents are often in frail health, and residents and staff have close daily contact with each other. The CARES Act includes a provision that GAO monitor the federal response to the pandemic. This report describes, among other objectives, guidance and training VA has issued to help CLCs respond to the pandemic and examines VA's oversight of infection prevention and control in CLCs during the pandemic. GAO analyzed documents, including guidance, training-related materials, and CLC self-assessments of their infection prevention and control practices. GAO also interviewed VA officials and CLC staff, the latter from five facilities selected based on factors such as having been cited for infection prevention and control deficiencies prior to the pandemic.
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  • U.S.-China Trade: USTR Should Fully Document Internal Procedures for Making Tariff Exclusion and Extension Decisions
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    What GAO Found The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) developed a process in July 2018 to review tariff exclusion requests for some imported products from China and later developed a process to extend these exclusions. From 2018 to 2020, U.S. stakeholders submitted about 53,000 exclusion requests to USTR for specific products covered by the tariffs. USTR's process consisted of a public comment period to submit requests, an internal review, an interagency assessment, and the decision publication. USTR documented some procedures for reviewing exclusion requests. However, it did not fully document all of its internal procedures, including roles and responsibilities for each step in its review process. GAO reviewed selected exclusion case files and found inconsistencies in the agency's reviews. For example, USTR did not document how reviewers should consider multiple requests from the same company, and GAO's case file review found USTR performed these steps inconsistently. Another case file lacked documentation to explain USTR's final decision because the agency's procedures did not specify whether such documentation was required. Federal internal control standards state that agencies should document their procedures to ensure they conduct them consistently and effectively, and to retain knowledge. Without fully documented internal procedures, USTR lacks reasonable assurance it conducted its reviews consistently. Moreover, documenting them will help USTR to administer any future exclusions and extensions. USTR evaluated each exclusion request on a case-by-case basis using several factors, including product availability outside of China and the potential economic harm of the tariffs. According to USTR officials, no one factor was essential to grant or deny a request. For example, USTR might grant a request that demonstrated the tariffs would cause severe economic harm even when the requested product was available outside of China. USTR denied about 46,000 requests (87 percent), primarily for the failure to show that the tariffs would cause severe economic harm to the requesters or other U.S. interests (see figure). Further, USTR did not extend 75 percent of the tariff exclusions it had granted. USTR's Primary Reasons for Denying Exclusion Requests for Section 301 Tariffs on Products from China, 2018-2020 Note: Totals may not sum due to rounding. Why GAO Did This Study In July 2018, USTR placed tariffs on certain products from China in response to an investigation that found certain trade acts, policies, and practices of China were unreasonable or discriminatory, and burden or restrict U.S. commerce. As of December 2020, the U.S. imposed tariffs on roughly $460 billion worth of Chinese imports under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended. Because these tariffs could harm U.S. workers and manufacturers that rely on these imports, USTR developed a process to exclude some products from these additional tariffs. U.S. businesses and members of Congress have raised questions about the transparency and fairness of USTR's administration of this process. GAO was asked to review USTR's tariff exclusion program. This report (1) examines the processes USTR used to review Section 301 tariff exclusion requests and extensions and (2) describes how USTR evaluated those tariff exclusion requests and extensions, and the outcomes of its decisions. GAO analyzed USTR's public and internal documents relating to the exclusion and extension processes, including 16 randomly selected nongeneralizable case files, and data from USTR and the U.S. Census Bureau. GAO also interviewed agency officials.
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