Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Justin Webb of BBC Radio 4

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

London, England

Lancaster House

QUESTION:  Secretary of State, let me start by asking this:  You were enormously positive about the relationship between the United States and Britain when you spoke at your press conference with the foreign secretary.  What impact does that positivity have on the possibility of a trade deal being signed between the two countries relatively soon?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, you’re right, I am, I was, I will be very positive.  Because there is no closer relationship.  And as we’re grappling with problems, challenges, opportunities around the world, I found from my many conversations, many engagements with my counterpart, Dominic Raab, also getting a chance to spend some time with the prime minister yesterday, that our two countries are profoundly in sync.  And that makes a big difference, because tackling the challenges that we face requires cooperation, collaboration, especially from the United States and United Kingdom.

As to a trade agreement, what we’re doing now is our trade negotiator just got on the job.  So she’s taking the time to go back and review everything that was discussed.  And that’s taking some time.  And we want to make sure that whether it’s with the United Kingdom or with anyone else, any agreements we reach are consistent with the principles that President Biden’s established to focus on making sure that these agreements really advance the well-being of our workers and their families.  That’s our focus.  So we’re taking a look at everything that’s been discussed to date, and we’ll take it forward from there.

QUESTION:  But I suppose the question, then, is whether the closeness that you have, that you feel towards this country, behind the scenes, nevermind the detail, is something that could lead – at least the possibility is there, could lead to a trade deal in the Biden first term.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I’m going to defer to my colleague as the trade representative and defer to the President, but certainly we’re looking very carefully at what’s already been discussed, what’s already been done in these conversations, and we’ll carry it forward from there.

QUESTION:  Hmm.  How important, if a deal is to be done, will be peace in Ireland?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  This is something that we’re very focused on.  We want to make sure that whether it’s with the United Kingdom and the European Union, whether it’s anything that we’re doing, that we make sure to the best of our ability that the tremendous gains from the Good Friday Agreement are sustained, and that the economic as well as political well-being of Northern Ireland is taken fully into account.

QUESTION:  Is keeping the Northern Ireland Protocol in place part of what is necessary in order —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I don’t want to get into what would be necessary or what wouldn’t.  I can just say that for President Biden, making sure that whatever is done, whatever we do, the gains of Good Friday are sustained, and we have the political and economic well-being of Northern Ireland in mind.

QUESTION:  When are we going to know, that final thought on the trade deal?  When are we going to know?  When are we going to get a sense of what is possible?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, my colleague the trade negotiator has a lot of reading to do, so let me – let me not put any face on that.

QUESTION:  (Laughter.)  Right, okay.  Wider issues.  It is said of the Biden foreign policy, of your foreign policy, that it is essentially the Trump foreign policy, only politer.  Is that at all true?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, we’re very much looking forward, not looking backward.  I can tell you what the basic principles are, the basic approach.  And I alluded to one piece of this that’s so important to the President already.  When we’re looking at the problems that are actually having an impact on the lives of the American people, on the lives of people here as well, whether it’s climate, whether it’s this pandemic of course, whether it’s the disruptive impact of emerging technologies, and so on down the list, not a single one can be solved by any one country acting alone, even the United States, or even the United Kingdom.

There’s a greater premium than at any time since I’ve been involved in these issues on cooperation, on collaboration, on working together.  That’s a driving part of the President’s foreign policy, which is why we’ve – we’ve re-engaged immediately with our allies and partners.  We’ve been working to reinvigorate those (inaudible) and as well in the multilateral system – the United Nations, all these different organizations.

That’s what’s driving us.  Because we’re trying – when we’re thinking about our foreign policy, first and foremost we’re thinking about our citizens and making sure we’re having a direct impact on improving their lives.  And that requires collaboration and cooperation.

QUESTION:  But there is a limit to that cooperation, isn’t there?  For instance, with Afghanistan, if Britain had said to you, “No, this is not a time to pull out,” you still would have done it, presumably.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We spent a lot of time before the President made his decision consulting with, listening to our allies and partners.  I went to NATO and I was in listening mode.  I reported back to President Biden everything I’d heard.  And we had a principle when it comes to Afghanistan: in together, adapt together, out together.  And that’s exactly what we’re doing.  There was —

QUESTION:  With you leading.  That’s the point.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   Well, there was a unanimous NATO statement in support of the President’s decision and moving forward with NATO’s withdrawal as well.  But one thing that’s really important here as well, even if we’re pulling our forces out of Afghanistan, we are not withdrawing from Afghanistan.  We are not leaving.  We’re remaining deeply engaged when it comes to supporting Afghanistan – economically, development assistance, humanitarian, supporting its security forces.  We’re staying in the game.

QUESTION:  Does not having to rely on Pakistan for a supply chain essentially, both physical and kind of political as well, does that change the dynamics, change what’s possible for you when it comes to influence in Afghanistan?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   One of the things I think that’s happened is the decision has concentrated the minds of pretty much everyone inside Afghanistan and outside of Afghanistan and the region as well.  For the last 20 years, they’ve been able, in effect, to be to some extent free riders on us, on NATO, on our partners.  They now have to decide, including Pakistan, what are – where their interests lie, and, if they have influence, how to use it.  I don’t think a single neighbor of Afghanistan’s, starting with Pakistan, has an interest in the country, for example, winding up in a civil war, because that would produce a massive refugee flow, other countries would be concerned about the export of extremism, of drugs, et cetera.

So one aspect of this is that countries may now have to really step up and use the influence that they have to advance their interests, and that influence, I think, would be in the direction of trying to keep Afghanistan on a positive path.

QUESTION:  Turning to Iran.  The British Government acknowledges that it owes the Iranian Government money.  If it found a way of handing that money over, would America want to stand in the way?  Would America support it being done?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   Look, I’m not going to get into the details of any negotiations.  Here’s what I can tell you.  We’ve been engaged now in Vienna for some weeks with our European partners, with Russia, China, and indirectly as you know with Iran.  I think we’ve demonstrated our very seriousness of purpose in terms of wanting to get back into the so-called JCPOA.  Compliance for compliance.  And what we don’t yet know is whether Iran is prepared to make the same decision and to move forward.  Our teams are coming back together in the coming days, and we’ll see.

QUESTION:  I understand that you don’t want to get involved in negotiations and matters that aren’t your country’s direct responsibility.  But could I ask you at least to say from your perspective if Britain wants to hand money to Iran, which is after all something the United States did back in the Obama administration, America would not stand in the way?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   It’s a sovereign decision for the United Kingdom.

QUESTION:  Right.  Okay.  And in the longer term, the relationship with Iran that you are trying to get to is what?  Because you’re accused, aren’t you, by your opponents at home, possibly by others, and perhaps by the Israelis in particular for certain naivete that actually the people you want to deal with in Iran are not the people in charge.  What’s your response to that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   Look, it’s pretty straightforward because this is focused on the nuclear challenge posed by Iran.  And before the agreement was reached some years ago, Iran was on the path where in a matter of weeks it could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon and leave us no time to do anything about it.  And we looked at every possible way of putting constraints on their program, cutting off their pathways to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon, and that’s exactly what the agreement did.  It pushed that so-called breakout time to past a year.  And it was working.  Our own people said Iran was complying.  So did the international inspectors.  It had the most intrusive inspections regime.

So right now, unfortunately, Iran has itself lifted many of the constraints imposed on it by the agreement because we pulled out.  And it is now getting closer and closer again to that point where its breakout time is going to be down to a few months and eventually even less.

So there’s nothing naive about this.  On the contrary, it’s a very clear-eyed way of dealing with a problem that was dealt with effectively by the JCPOA.  And we’ll have to see if we can do the same thing again.

QUESTION:  Vladimir Putin.  There’s going to be a meeting between Biden and Putin at some stage in the – do – how do you as an administration regard his strength?  So it is said of him, isn’t it, that he is an enormously strong leader?  It is also said of him that, actually, there’s a certain brittleness there, and you can see with Navalny, et cetera that there may be.  What’s your assessment of his internal strength, his ability to do what he wants to do?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I have to tell you, we’re less focused on President Putin or any one individual and more focused on Russia’s actions.  And what President Biden has said very clearly and repeatedly is if Russia acts recklessly or aggressively, as it did with the SolarWinds cyber intrusion, as it did with interference in our elections, as it did with what it’s done to Mr. Navalny, then we will respond.  But at the same time, we would prefer a more stable and predictable relationship, and if Russia chooses that path, there are areas where we can cooperate in our mutual interest.  But it is really focused on Russia’s actions.

QUESTION:  Does that mean as well, though, that when it comes to things like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that is pretty much done, isn’t it – it’s not working yet, but it’s pretty much done – between Germany and Russia, and President Trump objected to it and tried to stop it in its tracks, are you going to change course on that?  Do you still object or do you also object?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There too I think the President’s been clear for a long time, and including before he was President:  We think the pipeline is a bad idea.  It advances Russia’s interests and undermines Europe’s interests and our own.  It actually goes against the very principles that the EU has set out in terms of energy security and not being too dependent on any one country, notably, in this case, Russia.  And, of course, it’s detrimental to Ukraine, to Poland, and other key European countries.  So he’s been clear about that, we’ve been clear about that, and that hasn’t changed.

QUESTION:  Can I ask you a broad question about China?  We are very much in this country considering now what our relationship should be with China.  You are plainly as well.  Have we reached a point where we need to pull back?  We’ve been talking a lot about investments at the moment, Chinese investments in the United Kingdom, nuclear power, et cetera, core investments.  Are we at a stage where we need to be pulling back from them or not?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Here’s how we see it and how we’re thinking about it, because there are a few things that are very important, and some of that involves what we’re not trying to do. We’re not trying to contain China; we’re not trying to hold it back.  We recognize that countries have relationships with China, interests with China.  We’re not trying to say you have to choose between China and the United States.

But here’s what we are saying:  We’re in favor of upholding certain basic ideas, and in particular, this so-called rules-based international system that we and the United Kingdom, among others, have heavily invested in for generations.  And it’s been a benefit to us, been a benefit to countries around the world.  Whenever anyone tries to undermine that system by not playing by the rules, by not making good on commitments it’s made, then we will stand up and say no, we don’t accept that.  So this is not directed at China per se.  It is directed at upholding this rules-based order, because that has been the best guarantor of peace, progress, stability the world has seen over the last 75 years.

QUESTION:  But can we – can we do that upholding and also have a huge amount of Chinese investment in our economies?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think we have to be very careful about exactly what the nature is of that investment.  And if it’s investing in strategic industry, strategic assets, that’s something that countries need to look at very carefully.  But that’s one thing, and it’s very important.  Another thing is to say we’re not doing any visits.  That’s not what we’re saying.

QUESTION:  Final thought:  Does the Biden administration believe in American exceptionalism?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I would say yes, but a lot depends on what you mean by American exceptionalism.  Here’s what I think I mean by it, and I believe what the President means by it:  In our very founding documents, we said that our objective is to form a more perfect union, and by definition that acknowledges our imperfection.  It acknowledges that we’re constantly trying to make progress to renew, to deal with our challenges.  We’ve had a few challenges of late.  But I think what, to me at least, sets us apart from a number of countries is we deal with those challenges openly, transparently.  We don’t try to hide them; we don’t try to push them under the rug.  And sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s ugly, but in confronting our problems and our challenges, that’s actually how we make progress.  That’s what I think our country is all about.

QUESTION:  Do you feel Donald Trump over your shoulder?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’re looking ahead.  We’re looking forward, not backward.

QUESTION:  But when you mention the difficulties at home and you think of the difficulty you have in projecting American power around the world, is there kind of this sense that actually until you’ve sorted out your own country and have a – large numbers of people, for instance, who don’t accept the result of the election, et cetera – until those things are done, your ability as Secretary of State is curtailed.  Is that fair?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well – but that’s always the case, the – that there’s a profound connection between our strength and success at home and our ability to engage and lead effectively around the world.

QUESTION:  So it might not be there at the moment?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So when we get that – when we get that right, then I think it benefits our foreign policy.  And the President’s been, I think, very, very focused on this.  And we have as well the ability to lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.  We do have to set an example and that starts at home.

QUESTION:  Antony Blinken, thank you so much for talking to us.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good to be with you.  Thank you.

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    GAO identified 59 for-profit college conversions that occurred from January 2011 through August 2020, almost all of which involved the college's sale to a tax-exempt organization. In about one-third of the conversions, GAO found that former owners or other officials were insiders to the conversion—for example, by creating the tax-exempt organization that purchased the college or retaining the presidency of the college after its sale (see figure). While leadership continuity can benefit a college, insider involvement in a conversion poses a risk that insiders may improperly benefit—for example, by influencing the tax-exempt purchaser to pay more for the college than it is worth. Once a conversion has ended a college's for-profit ownership and transferred ownership to an organization the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recognizes as tax-exempt, the college must seek Department of Education (Education) approval to participate in federal student aid programs as a nonprofit college. Since January 2011, Education has approved 35 colleges as nonprofit colleges and denied two; nine are under review and 13 closed prior to Education reaching a decision. Figure: Example of a For-Profit College Conversion with Officials in Insider Roles IRS guidance directs staff to closely scrutinize whether significant transactions with insiders reported by an applicant for tax-exempt status will exceed fair-market value and improperly benefit insiders. If an application contains insufficient information to make that assessment, guidance says that staff may need to request additional information. In two of 11 planned or final conversions involving insiders that were disclosed in an application, GAO found that IRS approved the application without certain information, such as the college's planned purchase price or an appraisal report estimating the college's value. Without such information, IRS staff could not assess whether the price was inflated to improperly benefit insiders, which would be grounds to deny the application. If IRS staff do not consistently apply guidance, they may miss indications of improper benefit. Education has strengthened its reviews of for-profit college applications for nonprofit status, but it does not monitor newly converted colleges to assess ongoing risk of improper benefit. In two of three cases GAO reviewed in depth, college financial statements disclosed transactions with insiders that could indicate the risk of improper benefit. Education officials agreed that they could assess this risk through its audited financial statement review process and could develop procedures to do so. Until Education develops and implements such procedures for new conversions, potential improper benefit may go undetected. A for-profit college may convert to nonprofit status for a variety of reasons, such as wanting to align its status and mission. However, in some cases, former owners or other insiders could improperly benefit from the conversion, which is impermissible under the Internal Revenue Code and Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended. GAO was asked to examine for-profit college conversions. This report reviews what is known about insider involvement in conversions and to what extent IRS and Education identify and respond to the risk of improper benefit. GAO identified converted for-profit colleges and reviewed their public IRS filings. GAO also examined IRS and Education processes for overseeing conversions, interviewed agency officials, and reviewed federal laws, regulations and agency guidance. GAO selected five case study colleges based on certain risk factors, obtained information from college officials, and reviewed their audited financial statements. In three cases, GAO also reviewed Education case files. Because of the focus on IRS and Education oversight, GAO did not audit any college in this review to determine whether its conversion improperly benefitted insiders. GAO is making three recommendations, including that IRS assess and improve conversion application reviews and that Education develop and implement procedures to monitor newly converted colleges. IRS said it will assess its review process and will evaluate GAO's other recommendation, as discussed in the report. Education agreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.
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  • Information Technology: Federal Agencies Need to Take Urgent Action to Manage Supply Chain Risks
    In U.S GAO News
    Few of the 23 civilian Chief Financial Officers Act agencies had implemented seven selected foundational practices for managing information and communications technology (ICT) supply chain risks. Supply chain risk management (SCRM) is the process of identifying, assessing, and mitigating the risks associated with the global and distributed nature of ICT product and service supply chains. Many of the manufacturing inputs for these ICT products and services originate from a variety of sources throughout the world. (See figure 1.) Figure 1: Examples of Locations of Manufacturers or Suppliers of Information and Communications Technology Products and Services None of the 23 agencies fully implemented all of the SCRM practices and 14 of the 23 agencies had not implemented any of the practices. The practice with the highest rate of implementation was implemented by only six agencies. Conversely, none of the other practices were implemented by more than three agencies. Moreover, one practice had not been implemented by any of the agencies. (See figure 2.) Figure 2: Extent to Which the 23 Civilian Chief Financial Officers Act Agencies Implemented Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Supply Chain Risk Management (SCRM) Practices As a result of these weaknesses, these agencies are at a greater risk that malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities in the ICT supply chain causing disruption to mission operations, harm to individuals, or theft of intellectual property. For example, without establishing executive oversight of SCRM activities, agencies are limited in their ability to make risk decisions across the organization about how to most effectively secure their ICT product and service supply chains. Moreover, agencies lack the ability to understand and manage risk and reduce the likelihood that adverse events will occur without reasonable visibility and traceability into supply chains. Officials from the 23 agencies cited various factors that limited their implementation of the foundational practices for managing supply chain risks. The most commonly cited factor was the lack of federal SCRM guidance. For example, several agencies reported that they were waiting for federal guidance to be issued from the Federal Acquisition Security Council—a cross-agency group responsible for providing direction and guidance to executive agencies to reduce their supply chain risks—before implementing one or more of the foundational practices. According to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials, the council expects to complete this effort by December 2020. While the additional direction and guidance from the council could further assist agencies with the implementation of these practices, federal agencies currently have guidance to assist with managing their ICT supply chain risks. Specifically, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) issued ICT SCRM-specific guidance in 2015 and OMB has required agencies to implement ICT SCRM since 2016. Until agencies implement all of the foundational ICT SCRM practices, they will be limited in their ability to address supply chain risks across their organizations effectively. Federal agencies rely extensively on ICT products and services (e.g., computing systems, software, and networks) to carry out their operations. However, agencies face numerous ICT supply chain risks, including threats posed by counterfeiters who may exploit vulnerabilities in the supply chain and, thus, compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of an organization's systems and the information they contain. For example, in September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency reported that federal agencies faced approximately 180 different ICT supply chain-related threats. To address threats such as these, agencies must make risk-based ICT supply chain decisions about how to secure their systems. GAO was asked to conduct a review of federal agencies' ICT SCRM practices. The specific objective was to determine the extent to which federal agencies have implemented foundational ICT SCRM practices. To do so, GAO identified seven practices from NIST guidance that are foundational for an organization-wide approach to ICT SCRM and compared them to policies, procedures, and other documentation from the 23 civilian Chief Financial Officers Act agencies. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in October 2020. Information that agencies deemed sensitive was omitted and GAO substituted numeric identifiers that were randomly assigned for the names of the agencies due to sensitivity concerns. The foundational practices comprising ICT SCRM are: establishing executive oversight of ICT activities, including designating responsibility for leading agency-wide SCRM activities; developing an agency-wide ICT SCRM strategy for providing the organizational context in which risk-based decisions will be made; establishing an approach to identify and document agency ICT supply chain(s); establishing a process to conduct agency-wide assessments of ICT supply chain risks that identify, aggregate, and prioritize ICT supply chain risks that are present across the organization; establishing a process to conduct a SCRM review of a potential supplier that may include reviews of the processes used by suppliers to design, develop, test, implement, verify, deliver, and support ICT products and services; developing organizational ICT SCRM requirements for suppliers to ensure that suppliers are adequately addressing risks associated with ICT products and services; and developing organizational procedures to detect counterfeit and compromised ICT products prior to their deployment. GAO also interviewed relevant agency officials. In the sensitive report, GAO made a total of 145 recommendations to the 23 agencies to fully implement foundational practices in their organization-wide approaches to ICT SCRM. Of the 23 agencies, 17 agreed with all of the recommendations made to them; two agencies agreed with most, but not all of the recommendations; one agency disagreed with all of the recommendations; two agencies neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations, but stated they would address them; and one agency had no comments. GAO continues to believe that all of the recommendations are warranted, as discussed in the sensitive report. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harrisCC@gao.gov.
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  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems: FAA Could Strengthen Its Implementation of a Drone Traffic Management System by Improving Communication and Measuring Performance
    In U.S GAO News
    The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working with industry and public stakeholders to develop a traffic management system for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as drones. The UAS traffic management ecosystem (referred to as UTM) involves developing a framework of interconnected systems for managing multiple UAS operations. Under UTM, FAA would first establish rules for operating UAS, and UAS-industry service providers and operators would then coordinate the execution of flights. Operators would likely be able to access UTM, for example, through smart phone applications to map routes for UAS flights and check for flight restrictions. FAA began collaborating in 2015 with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to establish and implement a framework to research, develop, and test increasingly complex UTM concepts and capabilities with industry stakeholders. For example, in one scenario tested in Virginia, UAS operators using UTM were alerted to a rescue helicopter, allowing the operators to avoid the area. Example of a Traffic Management Scenario Simulating a Real-World Situation for an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) To further develop and implement UTM, FAA conducted tests through its UTM pilot program, completed in November 2020, and is working on a UTM implementation plan. However, industry stakeholders said they need more information on the next steps, and it is uncertain whether FAA's plan will include performance goals and measures. FAA has reported that it plans to use results from the pilot program to inform its implementation plan, statutorily required one year after the pilot program concludes. UAS stakeholders generally agreed with FAA's approach for moving UTM toward implementation. However, they said that they face planning challenges because FAA provides limited information on timing and substance of next steps, such as areas of UTM technology that FAA will focus on during testing. In addition, FAA has not indicated whether the implementation plan will include performance goals and measures, instead stating that such metrics are not statutorily required. Providing more data to the UAS industry and public stakeholders in the short term and including goals and metrics in the plan could help stakeholders make informed decisions and better align their activities with FAA plans for UTM testing and implementation. Why GAO Did This Study UAS have potential to provide significant social and economic benefits in the U.S. FAA is tasked with safely integrating UAS into the national airspace. UTM, as planned, will be a traffic management system where UAS operators and service providers are responsible for the coordination and management of operations at low altitudes (below 400 feet), with rules established by FAA. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to review infrastructure requirements for monitoring UAS at low altitude. This report examines, among other things, the actions FAA has taken to develop UTM and additional steps needed to achieve UTM's implementation.  GAO reviewed relevant statutes, regulations, and agency documents; assessed FAA's efforts against internal controls for communicating quality information and GAO's work on results- oriented practices and performance measures; and interviewed 19 UAS industry and public stakeholders selected to achieve a range of perspectives. GAO is recommending that FAA: (1) provide stakeholders with additional information on the timing and substance of UTM testing and implementation efforts using FAA's UTM website or other appropriate means, and (2) develop performance goals and measures for its UTM implementation plan. The Department of Transportation generally concurred with these recommendations. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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  • The Nation’s Fiscal Health: Effective Use of Fiscal Rules and Targets
    In U.S GAO News
    In fiscal year 2019, debt held by the public reached 79 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The government's fiscal response to COVID-19 combined with the severe economic contraction from the pandemic will substantially increase federal debt. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that debt held by the public will reach 98 percent of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2020. The nation's fiscal challenges will require attention once the economy has substantially recovered and public health goals have been attained. GAO has previously reported that a long-term plan is needed to put the government on a sustainable fiscal path. Other countries have used well-designed fiscal rules and targets—which constrain fiscal policy by controlling factors like expenditures or revenue—to contain excessive deficits. For example, Germany's constitution places limits on its deficits. The U.S. federal government has previously enacted fiscal rules, such as those in the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, current fiscal rules have not effectively addressed the misalignment between spending and revenues over time. GAO identified key considerations to help Congress if it were to adopt new fiscal rules and targets, as part of a long-term plan for fiscal sustainability (see table). Key Considerations for Designing, Implementing, and Enforcing Fiscal Rules and Targets Setting clear goals and objectives can anchor a country's fiscal policy. Fiscal rules and targets can help ensure that spending and revenue decisions align with agreed-upon goals and objectives. The weight given to tradeoffs among simplicity, flexibility, and enforceability depends on the goals a country is trying to achieve with a fiscal rule. In addition, there are tradeoffs between the types and combinations of rules, and the time frames over which the rules apply. The degree to which fiscal rules and targets are binding, such as being supported through a country's constitution or nonbinding political agreements, can impact their permanence, as well as the extent to which ongoing political commitment is needed to uphold them. Integrating fiscal rules and targets into budget discussions can contribute to their ongoing use and provide for a built-in enforcement mechanism. The budget process can include reviews of fiscal rules and targets. Fiscal rules and targets with limited, well-defined exemptions, clear escape clauses for events such as national emergencies, and adjustments for the economic cycle can help a country address future crises. Institutions supporting fiscal rules and targets need clear roles and responsibilities for supporting their implementation and measuring their effectiveness. Independently analyzed data and assessments can help institutions monitor compliance with fiscal rules and targets. Having clear, transparent fiscal rules and targets that a government communicates to the public and that the public understands can contribute to a culture of fiscal transparency and promote fiscal sustainability for the country. Source: GAO analysis of literature review and interviews. | GAO-20-561 Our nation faces serious challenges at a time when the federal government is highly leveraged in debt by historical norms. The imbalance between revenue and spending built into current law and policy have placed the nation on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Fiscal rules and targets can be used to help frame and control the overall results of spending and revenue decisions that affect the debt. GAO was asked to review fiscal rules and targets. This report (1) assesses the extent to which the federal government has taken action to contribute to long-term fiscal sustainability through fiscal rules and targets, and (2) identifies key considerations for designing, implementing, and enforcing fiscal rules and targets in the U.S. GAO compared current and former U.S. fiscal rules to literature on the effective use of rules and targets; reviewed CBO reports and relevant laws; and interviewed experts. GAO conducted case studies of national fiscal rules in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Congress should consider establishing a long-term fiscal plan that includes fiscal rules and targets, such as a debt-to-GDP target, and weigh GAO's key considerations to ensure proper design, implementation, and enforcement of these rules and targets. The Department of the Treasury and other entities provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jeff Arkin, at (202) 512-6806 or arkinj@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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    In U.S GAO News
    As of June 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required consumers nationwide to use the Lifeline National Verifier (Verifier), a centralized process and data system, to check their eligibility for Lifeline. Because consumers who participate in certain federal benefits programs qualify for discounted phone and internet service through Lifeline, the Verifier checks state and federal benefits databases to verify consumers' eligibility. The Verifier also includes a manual review process for consumers to submit documents proving their eligibility if they cannot be found in a database. As of November 2020, the Verifier had connections with databases in 20 states and 2 federal agencies. GAO found that although consumers in states without state database connections had the same likelihood of actually meeting eligibility requirements as consumers in states with such connections, they were less likely to be found eligible for Lifeline through the Verifier (see figure). Average Eligibility Determination for New Lifeline Applicants in States with and without State Database Connections to the Lifeline National Verifier, June 2018 through June 2020 FCC coordinated with state and federal stakeholders to implement the Verifier. However, stakeholders told GAO that many eligible consumers are not aware of the Verifier or Lifeline. Consumers may lack this awareness because FCC's consumer education planning did not always align with key practices, such as developing consistent, clear messages and researching target audiences. As a result, eligible consumers may not apply for Lifeline. Moreover, while FCC originally envisioned tribal governments and organizations assisting residents of tribal lands with the Verifier, it has not provided them with quality information to effectively do so. Although FCC reported that the Verifier is meeting its goal of improving the consumer experience, GAO found that the manual review process, which FCC used to determine the eligibility of more than half of applicants in many states, is challenging for consumers. However, FCC does not collect complete information on consumers' experience with this process, and thus is limited in its ability to identify and address the challenges consumers face. Such challenges likely contributed to eligible consumers giving up on their applications. For example, we found that more than two-thirds of applicants who underwent manual review between June 2018 and June 2020 did not complete their applications. FCC's Lifeline program discounts phone and internet service for eligible low-income consumers. In 2019, FCC authorized $982 million in support for 6.9 million eligible consumers. FCC created the Verifier with the stated goals of reducing fraud and costs and improving the consumer experience. The Verifier includes an online application, connections to state and federal benefits databases, and a standardized manual review process. GAO was asked to review FCC's implementation of the Verifier. This report examines: (1) the status of the Verifier; (2) FCC's coordination with stakeholders and efforts to educate consumers and facilitate tribal stakeholders' involvement; and (3) the extent to which the Verifier is meeting its goals. GAO reviewed FCC orders and documentation; analyzed Verifier performance and Lifeline subscriber data; interviewed FCC and other agency officials, and selected industry, state, tribal, and consumer stakeholders; and surveyed state officials. Stakeholders were selected to obtain a variety of non-generalizable viewpoints. GAO is making six recommendations, including that FCC develop a consumer education plan, provide quality information to tribal organizations, and collect information on consumers' experience with the manual review process. FCC agreed to take steps to address all of GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202)-512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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