Special Briefing with Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian P. McKeon, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Principal Advisor to the Administrator Mark Feierstein, and Experts On the Administration’s Budget Proposal for the Department of State and USAID for Fiscal Year 2022

Brian P. McKeon, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources

Mark Feierstein, Principal Advisor to the Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

Via Teleconference

MR ICE: Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this on-the-record briefing on the details of the Fiscal Year 2022 budget request for the State Department and USAID that was released earlier today. With us on the line are State Department Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Brian McKeon and the USAID Administrator’s Principal Advisor Mark Feierstein.

Also joining us today is Director Douglas Pitkin of the State Department’s Bureau of Budget and Planning; Dr. Tracy Carson, Acting Director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance; and USAID Budget Director Tricia Schmitt.

To start us off, I’ll be turning the call over to Deputy Secretary McKeon and Advisor Feierstein for their opening remarks, and then afterward our participants will take a few of your questions.

Again, just as a quick reminder, this briefing is on the record, but the contents of the call are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

And with that, let’s go to Deputy Secretary McKeon. Sir.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Thank you, JT. Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for joining us. You’re doing great service, working hard on the afternoon before Memorial Day weekend.

As Secretary Blinken noted in his press release, the FY22 Presidents’ budget request includes historic investments across the interagency that will lay the foundation for shared growth and prosperity for decades to come.

I want to share a few toplines from the request for the State Department and USAID, starting with a number of $58.5 billion, a more than 5 billion – or 10 percent – increase over the FY 2021 level. I am pleased to be joined on this call by Mark Feierstein, the Principal Advisor to Administrator Power, who will speak to the budget request for USAID. The relationship between our department and AID is critical in achieving the President’s foreign policy and development goals, and we’re fortunate to have such effective partners. And all the senior leaders here and at AID know each other very well, so we don’t have to build a working relationship, because we already have it.

The first thing I want to highlight is the investment this budget makes in our workforce, which is our greatest asset. As one of the President’s earliest national security memoranda states, quote, “the revitalization of our national security and foreign policy institutions is essential to advancing America’s security, prosperity, and values, accelerating our domestic renewal, and delivering results for all Americans.” End quote. That’s why this budget includes the largest staffing increase for the Department in a decade, covering both the Foreign and Civil Service.

But it’s not just about adding new positions. It’s about ensuring that we recruit and – this is essential – retain the right people: a workforce that represents the full diversity and talent of the United States. The Secretary’s appointment of Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as the Department’s first ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer is just one step in that effort. We are taking steps to revitalize the Department by ensuring that our employees have the tools and training they need to be successful.

We are also investing in the programs and capabilities we need to address the challenges of our time. For example, the budget includes: $10 billion for global health programs, including $1 billion to strengthen pandemic preparedness, which is an $800 million increase; 2.5 billion across the interagency to address climate change, more than quadruple the FY21 level, in close coordination with Special Presidential Envoy Former Secretary Kerry; and increases in democracy and governance programs to stem the tide of rising authoritarianism.

Our State and USAID budget directors will provide additional details on these sectors and other key investments, including the inclusion of more predictable resources to sustain consular services for Americans traveling, working, and living overseas, and additional investments in our cybersecurity and other technology modernization efforts.

We are also requesting the resources we need to support our commitments to key allies and partners, both in this budget and in separate requests. For example, we will be working with the Congress to seek an additional 8,000 Afghan Special Immigrant Visas to meet our commitment to those who have supported our efforts in Afghanistan at great risk to themselves and their families. We are working with the interagency to accelerate SIV processing so we can make use of those visas. We are also continuing to work with the international community on the provision of additional assistance to the Afghan people and government toward a shared goal of prosperity and security for the country.

Finally, this budget is a demonstration of renewed U.S. leadership in the international community. It fully funds our commitments to UN peacekeeping and other international organizations and provides more than $10 billion in humanitarian assistance, including to support a refugee admissions level of up to 125,000. We cannot advance our interests by withdrawing from the world stage. We need to be in the room working with our partners and competitors alike, fighting for our interests.

We will have more to say about the budget over the coming weeks and months about how it reflects and resources our goals and our values as we work with the Congress to secure this funding. I’ll stop here now and turn it over to Mark.

MR FEIERSTEIN: Well thank you, Brian, and good afternoon, everybody, and thanks so much for joining. I am very pleased to be joining my friend and State Department colleague, Brian McKeon, to discuss the Biden-Harris administration’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget request. We at USAID are grateful for Deputy Secretary McKeon’s partnership and commitment to the notion that our diplomacy and development efforts abroad are complementary and interdependent.

The FY22 budget request includes 27.7 billion for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s fully and partially managed accounts. It signals President Biden’s commitment to reassert the United States’s role as a leader in global development and humanitarian assistance.

From day one, President Biden made clear that development, alongside defense and diplomacy, is critical to American foreign policy. This is not only reflected in the FY 2022 budget request, but also in the President’s decision to elevate the USAID administrator as a standing member of the National Security Council.

This budget also reflects the nature and complexity of the challenges that we face in the 21st century – those that cannot be confined within national borders and require multilateral efforts to confront. Simply put, building back better at home also requires building back better overseas.

By fighting COVID-19 abroad, we stem the rise of variants that can lead to outbreaks at home. When incomes rise in developing countries, those countries become more self-reliant and less dependent on U.S. support. When we deliver aid to those affected by natural disasters or humanitarian crises, we demonstrate the best of American values and build the goodwill that inspires action and cooperation from our allies.

The ongoing pandemic illustrates the importance of USAID’s efforts to bolster health systems globally. We must fight COVID-19 everywhere it exists and work to prevent, prepare for, and respond to future infectious disease outbreaks.

We also face an urgent climate crisis which literally poses a threat to some countries’ existence and is also a threat to our own national security. The impacts of climate change lead to conflict, hunger, displacement, and other extreme weather events that cost lives and damage critical infrastructure at home.

Accompanying the existential threats of climate change and the spread of infectious disease is the threat posed by the rise of malign actors undermining the rule of law and democratic norms. Amid the 15-year democratic decline globally documented by Freedom House, nine more countries slipped into a state of autocracy in the last five years alone. USAID’s democracy programming confronts authoritarianism and combats corruption and misinformation through partnerships with government reformers and civil society actors seeking to hold illiberal regimes accountable.

Poverty, violence, and misrule often lead people to leave their countries in search of better opportunities abroad. In Central America, USAID is committed to addressing the root causes of irregular migration by tackling the violence, corruption, and lack of opportunity that drive so many to risk their lives and the lives of their children. Our approach includes a greater emphasis on building economic resilience, identifying and addressing conditions in emigration hot spots, and improving living conditions by promoting good governance.

The United States is also the world’s largest donor for global humanitarian assistance, and we will continue to leverage our contributions to get other countries to do more. The budget request includes 6.3 billion to address needs resulting from man-made emergencies in countries like Yemen, Ethiopia, and Venezuela, as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, and volcano eruptions like we’ve seen recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. And we’ll not just respond to crises, but invest in resilience and risk reduction efforts that reduce the economic and human cost of disasters.

Now, none of this work would be possible without an investment in our workforce, which is why this request includes $1.9 billion to boost our Civil Service and Foreign Service staffing and create a workforce that reflects the diversity of our country. We are committed to building the most diverse, and most talented, workforce in USAID history.

In sum, the President’s Budget Request released today reflects the reality that America’s security is inextricably linked to that of other nations around the world. This budget proposal is a reflection of the critical importance of development and humanitarian assistance in advancing U.S. interests and upholding American values.

Thank you and we look forward to your questions.

MR ICE: Okay. And with that, just a quick reminder to dial 1-0 to get into our question queue. And let’s go to the line of Matt Lee.

OPERATOR: You are open, Mr. Lee.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Happy Memorial Day weekend, almost. I’ve got two things, they’re both very brief. The first one is – and forgive me, because my math is absolutely atrocious – but a little back-of-the-envelope addition just from the fact sheets and what you’ve said on this call suggests that almost a third of the total is taken up by climate change, health, staffing, and other – and other things like that, including – let me see, I had it written down. Anyway, I just want to know: Is that correct? I mean, it seems like a substantial percentage of this budget – oh, humanitarian assistance was the other one. Is that – am I correct that that’s almost 30 billion of the total 58.5?

And then just one other thing, and that is: Already some human rights groups are talking about how this is – how the foreign military financing for Egypt contradicts the administration’s “no blank check” policy. Is it – it’s always been my understanding that that funding level was – is relatively static and isn’t something that you guys just change in the request; it’s something that Congress weighs in on. Is that correct, as well? Thank you.

MR FEIERSTEIN: I’m going to defer to the deputy secretary on the – and Tracy Carson and Tricia Schmitt on the one-third piece since they’re steeped in all the numbers, and I’m as good at math as you are, Matt.

MR PITKIN: This is Doug Pitkin. I’ll start, I guess. Certainly on the climate and the health, those are certainly large elements of the request. While the workforce is an element, it is – in terms of dollar terms, it’s not the most significant number increase. Another key priority in the request is an increase of $600 million to pay our contributions to the UN, including peacekeeping as well as arrears from prior years. So I think in terms of the workforce numbers between State and AID, the increase is probably closer to about 350 million all told, including AID.

But certainly, climate, health, and international contributions are relatively larger amounts, as well as, I believe, Central America. So I’ll let Tracy clarify further.

MS CARSON: Absolutely. The health, humanitarian assistance, and climate total is roughly 21.6 million. So there’s 10 million for health, there’s 10 million for humanitarian assistance, and then there’s – I’m sorry, there’s 10 billion for health, 10 billion for humanitarian assistance, and then 1.6 billion for climate. And Doug is absolutely correct – Central America is $861 million, and so they do constitute a sizeable amount of the foreign assistance request.

MR ICE: Okay. With that, let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler. Jennifer?

QUESTION: Thank you for doing the call. I was wondering if you could get into more specifics about the funding for increasing cybersecurity here, especially in light of today’s latest cyber attack? Thank you.

MR PITKIN: This is Doug Pitkin. I can start with the State portion. For the State Department we’re requesting a total increase of approximately 160 million in cybersecurity funding over our current levels. And this reflects a combination of ongoing programs managed by our chief information officer and our Bureau of Diplomatic Security, as well as a number of specific initiatives to respond to the threats identified by the SolarWinds incidents over the last few months. And so for State it’s a topline increase of $160 million for cybersecurity over current levels.

MR FEIERSTEIN: Tricia, do you want to speak to the cyber level for USAID and what the full amount is?

MS SCHMITT: Sure. For our overall operational expenses account at USAID, it is 1.9 billion, which includes increases for our staffing, our – it does include our increased investments for information technology and modernization. The funding will include upgrades to support our – again, the modernization pieces but the actual IT piece as well with ’21 enacted.

MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Simon Ateba.

QUESTION: Thank you for taking my question. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. The Trump administration defunded several programs that were taking place in Africa. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit more about how the Biden administration’s budget will benefit programs and interventions by USAID and State Department in Africa. And will those interventions be dependent on human rights, democracy, and so on? And how much exactly is going to Africa? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Go ahead, Tracy or Tricia.

MS CARSON: Yeah, I’ll take that. The request for Africa is $7.6 billion across a range of accounts. It includes the robust support for democracy, rights, and governance, as well as support for economic growth activities, as well as some of our supports to help with civilian security assistance around a range of countries on the continent. You’ll see notable increases for – are in – you’ll see notable increases for engagement, especially with democracy, rights, and governance, (inaudible) USAID core requirement.

I’ll turn to (inaudible) if you’ve got anything else.

MR FEIERSTEIN: Yeah, I’m happy to speak to that as well. So first, thank you for the question. And Africa is of course of utmost importance to USAID. We with State have a joint regional strategy that focuses on four goals. First is to increase economic growth. Second to – is to promote security. Third is to strengthen democracy and human rights. And fourth is to promote inclusive country-level development.

We have some programs that are specific to Africa, such as Prosper Africa. We’re investing $80 million there, and that program is designed to connect U.S. and African businesses with new buyers, suppliers, and investment opportunities. We also have a Power Africa program which began in the Obama administration. For that we’re requesting $57.5 million, and we’re going to use that to continue to promote sub-Saharan Africa’s transition to cleaner and renewable energy. And then we have global programs like Feed the Future, where we promote agricultural development and our investments in Africa are quite significant under that. Similarly, we have health programs that are fairly generous on the African continent. So overall, we – I think we – this very much speaks to the needs that the – that Africa has these days.

But I don’t if, Tricia, do you want to – have anything?

MS SCHMITT: No, that’s it. Thank you.

MR ICE: Okay, let’s go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson with the Los Angeles Times.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I wanted to go back to the question of Central America for a minute and maybe a little more detail, if at all possible, on the 861 million being assigned there. Obviously, that’s the first part of the 4 billion that President Biden has offered the region. But as you know, there’s a lot of controversy about where that money should go, to whom, et cetera. And so to what extent did strings attach to this money or discussion about what – who it should go to, which government first and then – which governments first and then which organizations and different entities within the countries? I’m just curious if there was more discussion about that and anything put in writing about how to disburse these funds. Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: So you packed a lot into your question, Tracy. Just at a high level, as you indicated, the President during the campaign promised 4 billion over four years. This is the first step in meeting that commitment. It’s going to focus on strengthening rule of law, democratic governance, strengthening civil society, and improving respect for human rights. I know from the experience of when a similar program was initiated at the end of the Obama-Biden administration and Vice President Biden was leading the effort for the administration, there was a fair amount of, shall we say, conditionality in conversations with the Central American governments, putting requests upon them on certain things that they were going to do in terms of their own investments but also conditions on – related to corruption and governance.

And so I expect we will have some similar conversations. But – and a lot of the funds at that time were disbursed to NGOs more than the governments, but I don’t know that we’ve got this all laid out in detail at this time. I’d defer to other colleagues if they want to add any thoughts.

MR FEIERSTEIN: Well, I would just speak to how we’re carrying this out in practice. And just to offer one example, you may have seen an announcement a few days ago from USAID with regard to funding in El Salvador. And we had been supporting the attorney general’s office there and the supreme court, but we were concerned about certain steps that were taken there, and that we have – we pivot that money towards civil society. So we recognize that in some cases we don’t have perfect development partners, but we’re confident that we can identify in Central America – and this is true around the world – that we can identify reformers within government, people who have the political will to carry out democratic reform. And we’re also confident we can identify civil society actors who can hold their governments accountable and carry out our mutual development objectives. Thank you.

MR ICE: And we do have some more questions in the queue, but I’m aware, sir, Mr. Deputy Secretary, that you have a hard stop with us this afternoon. Are you able to carry on or do you need to go, sir?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Can do one more, but I realize – and I apologize – didn’t address Matt Lee’s question on Egypt. Let me just do that quickly. You are correct, Matt; it is steady state funding. I think the FMF number’s been at $1.3 billion for several years. We’re going to have conversations with the Congress and the Government of Egypt on the best way to use our assistance to meet our interests, including on human rights. That’s what we’d say about that right now.

MR ICE: Thank you, sir. Let’s go to the line of Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I really appreciate you taking the time. I really very quickly skimmed through the numbers here, so it’s possible that there’s something I’ve missed. Given everything that Biden has promised, State Department has promised, and how you might be different to past administrations – and when I say that I’m going as far back as Reagan administration – and you want to build back better. Can you respond with two things in focus? One, the African diaspora and the African – the indigenous African diaspora and the indigenous independent media. If you are to help support with your four goals Africa, are you saying here, besides the climate and the health portions, that you are going to try to do this without supporting indigenous African-led development here? Or can you point me to where that is in this budget request? Thanks.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: USAID, this – think we’d defer to you to address this first.

MR FEIERSTEIN: Yeah, happy to take this. So look, everything that we do around the world is designed to support local actors, and that is certainly true in Africa as well. So we put together a strategy, we put together a budget that is based on consultations with governments, with civil society, with private sector in the region. And you mentioned diaspora, and diaspora is a very, very important element of this as well. In many cases, they are the – some of the leading actors and investors in their home countries. So we try to work with them as well, and the goal here, of course, is to leverage – use our technical assistance, use our resources to leverage the talents of others and to leverage the resources of others, and that certainly includes the diaspora communities. But thank you for the question.

MR ICE: Okay. Let’s quickly go to the line of David Wainer at Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Could you please clarify the funding you mentioned for programs that help Afghans who worked with U.S. personnel? And just to clarify, are these translators, and what is the total cost of helping those people? And how is that request any different from the 2021 budget? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: So the program that I think folks are familiar with is called the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program. Congress provides authorization for a certain number of visas each year. Typically, in the last few years, they’ve provided 4,000 slots. We’re asking for 8,000 this year. The spending is on – typically on the mandatory side of the budget, not the discretionary. Obviously the cost of actually processing the visa applications, doing the interviews, and their initial resettlement – that’s kind of baked into the budget and how we do our work as a department. The Congress has set forth categories of prioritization in the SIV program. I don’t have the categories in front of me, but the translators, interpreters are in – I believe in tier one of the categories.

MR ICE: And I think we have time for just one last quick question. Let’s go to Rachel Oswald at Congressional Quarterly.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Can you hear me?

MR ICE: Yes, we have you.

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about what funding is directed toward refugee assistance, specifically rebuilding capacity for admissions domestically?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Tracy, I don’t have the PRM number at my fingertips – several billion dollars, but I don’t have the exact number. Tracy, do you have that?

MS CARSON: My apologies. I was on – I was talking on mute. The PRM number for refugee assistance is (inaudible) billion dollars, and this includes support for up to 125,000 refugees as well as support to reinitiate humanitarian assistance via UNRWA.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: I – you were boxed out for a second, Tracy. I couldn’t hear the number – the billion dollars.

MS CARSON: Oh, $3.8 billion for refugee assistance, and that includes support for up to 125,000 refugees as part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Right. And more broadly to your question, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration is taking steps to rebuild the infrastructure here in the United States with the local resettlement agencies, helping them with financial assistance, and staffing up its own bureau because they need some additional positions to meet the ambitious target that the President has set for us.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR ICE: Okay, very well. So we’re actually over time now, three minutes after the hour. I would like to give a special thanks to our experts on the line today with us, Deputy Secretary McKeon, Principal Advisor Feierstein, Director Pitkin, Acting Director Dr. Carson, and Budget Director Tricia Schmitt. This does conclude our call today. With that, the embargo is lifted. Please have a great weekend.

More from: Brian P. McKeon, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, Mark Feierstein, Principal Advisor to the Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

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    Literature GAO reviewed indicated that private insurance payments for anesthesia services on average were more than 3-1/2 times those of Medicare payments. This payment difference increased from what GAO reported in 2007—average private insurance payments for certain anesthesia services in 2004 were about 3 times those of Medicare. While Medicare rates for anesthesia services are set by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), private insurance rates are set through negotiations between providers and private insurers. GAO identified three recent studies with analyses of private insurance and Medicare payments for anesthesia services: Researchers from Yale University calculated that private insurance payments were 3.67 times Medicare payments, on average, for services provided by anesthesiologists for one large private insurer in 2015 operating across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Health Care Cost Institute calculated that in 2017 private insurance payments ranged from 2 to 7 times Medicare payments, on average, across six common services provided by anesthesiologists in 33 states. Wide state-to-state variation within specific services was reported. The American Society of Anesthesiologists reported that private insurance payments were 3.46 times Medicare payments, on average, based on a survey of its members in 2019. According to studies GAO reviewed and stakeholders GAO interviewed, market factors likely enhanced anesthesia providers' negotiating position and allowed them to secure higher private payments. For example, several studies and stakeholders cited market concentration as a key factor that increased private payments for anesthesia services. In a market with high provider concentration—or relatively few providers in a given market—there is little competition between providers, enabling the providers within that market to negotiate for higher payments from private insurers. Studies also indicated that specialists, including anesthesia providers, could negotiate higher in-network payment rates because they were able to leave an insurer's network with little risk of losing patients or revenue. In addition, when anesthesia providers are not a part of a private insurer's network, they are typically able to bill for a higher amount than the insurer would pay for an in-network provider, known as out-of-network billing. This dynamic decreases providers' incentives to participate in insurer networks because it creates an attractive alternative to network participation. GAO's interviews with stakeholders, literature review, and review of agency data generally did not indicate that the supply of anesthesia providers was insufficient for Medicare beneficiaries. CMS data indicate that the number of active anesthesia providers per 100,000 Medicare beneficiaries increased from 2010 through 2018 and that a very small number of anesthesia providers opted out of the Medicare program. Furthermore, researchers and stakeholders GAO interviewed were not aware of any issues with access to anesthesia services for Medicare beneficiaries, including those in traditionally underserved rural areas. In 2018, Medicare paid over $2 billion for anesthesia services, such as general anesthesia administered to beneficiaries undergoing surgical or other invasive procedures. The joint explanatory statement for the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 included a provision for GAO to update its 2007 report and examine how differences in payment rates for anesthesia services have changed since that time. In 2007, GAO reported that Medicare payments in 2004 for certain anesthesia services provided by anesthesiologists were on average 67 percent lower than private insurance payments in certain geographic areas—indicating that private payments were about 3 times more than Medicare payments at that time. This report describes what is known about (1) recent trends in differences between Medicare and private payments for anesthesia services, and (2) the sufficiency of the supply of anesthesia providers for Medicare beneficiaries. GAO reviewed literature and available published data on payment differences for anesthesia services, published in the United States since 2010. GAO also reviewed data from CMS on the number of anesthesia providers from 2010, 2018, and 2020. GAO also interviewed a nongeneralizable selection of three research groups, two beneficiary advocacy groups, and five stakeholder groups, including those representing anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists, and hospitals, to obtain their perspectives on these issues. The Department of Health and Human Services provided no comments on this report. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or farbj@gao.gov.
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  • Air Pollution: Opportunities to Better Sustain and Modernize the National Air Quality Monitoring System
    In U.S GAO News
    The ambient air quality monitoring system is a national asset that provides standardized information for implementing the Clean Air Act and protecting public health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state and local agencies cooperatively manage the system, with each playing different roles in design, operation, oversight, and funding. For example, EPA establishes minimum requirements for the system, and state and local agencies operate the monitors and report data to EPA. Officials from EPA and selected state and local agencies identified challenges related to sustaining the monitoring system. For example, they said that infrastructure is aging while annual EPA funding for state and local air quality management grants, which cover monitoring, has decreased by about 20 percent since 2004 after adjusting for inflation (see fig.). GAO found inconsistencies in how EPA regions have addressed these challenges. GAO's prior work has identified key characteristics of asset management, such as identifying needed resources and using quality data to manage infrastructure risks, which can help organizations optimize limited resources. By developing an asset management framework that includes such characteristics, EPA could better target limited resources toward the highest priorities for consistently sustaining the system. Annual Inflation-Adjusted EPA Funding for State and Local Air Quality Management Grants Air quality managers, researchers, and the public need additional information so they can better understand and address the health risks from air pollution, according to GAO's review of literature and interviews GAO conducted. These needs include additional information on (1) air toxics to understand health risks in key locations such as near industrial facilities; and (2) how to use low-cost sensors to provide real-time, local-scale air quality information. EPA and state and local agencies face persistent challenges meeting such air quality information needs, including challenges in understanding the performance of low-cost sensors. GAO illustrated this challenge by collecting air quality data from low-cost sensors and finding variability in their performance. EPA has strategies aimed at better meeting the additional air quality information needs of managers, researchers, and the public, but the strategies are outdated and incomplete. For example, they do not clearly define roles for meeting additional information needs. GAO's prior work on asset management suggests that a more strategic approach could help EPA modernize the system to better meet the additional information needs. By developing a modernization plan that aligns with leading practices for strategic planning and risk management, such as establishing modernization goals and roles, EPA could better ensure that the system meets the additional information needs of air quality managers, researchers, and the public and is positioned to protect public health. The national ambient air quality monitoring system shows that the United States has made progress in reducing air pollution but that risks to public health and the environment continue in certain locations. The system consists of sites that measure air pollution levels around fixed locations across the country using specific methods. Since the system began in the 1970s, air quality concerns have changed—such as increased concern about the health effects of air toxics. GAO was asked to evaluate the national air quality monitoring system. This report examines the role of the system and how it is managed, challenges in managing the system and actions to address them, and needs for additional air quality information and actions to address challenges in meeting those needs. GAO reviewed literature, laws, and agency documents; conducted a demonstration of low-cost sensors; and interviewed EPA officials, selected state and local officials, representatives from air quality associations, and stakeholders. GAO is making two recommendations for EPA to (1) establish an asset management framework for the monitoring system that includes key characteristics and (2) develop an air quality monitoring modernization plan that aligns with leading practices. In written comments on the report, EPA generally agreed with the recommendations. For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.
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  • Servicemember Rights: Mandatory Arbitration Clauses Have Affected Some Employment and Consumer Claims but the Extent of Their Effects is Unknown
    In U.S GAO News
    Mandatory arbitration clauses in civilian employment contracts and consumer agreements have prevented servicemembers from resolving certain claims in court under two laws that offer protections: the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, as amended (USERRA), and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, as amended (SCRA) (see figure). Some courts have held that claims involving mandatory arbitration clauses must be resolved with arbitrators in private proceedings rather than in court. Although we reviewed federal court cases that upheld the enforceability of these clauses, Department of Justice (DOJ) officials said mandatory arbitration clauses have not prevented DOJ from initiating lawsuits against employers and other businesses under USERRA or SCRA. However, DOJ officials noted that these clauses could affect their ability to pursue USERRA claims against private employers on behalf of servicemembers. Servicemembers may also seek administrative assistance from federal agencies, and mandatory arbitration clauses have not prevented agencies from providing this assistance. For example, officials from DOJ, as well as the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Labor (DOL), told us they can often informally resolve claims for servicemembers by explaining servicemember rights to employers and businesses. Examples of Employment and Consumer Protections for Servicemembers Note: USERRA generally provides protections for individuals who voluntarily or involuntarily leave civilian employment to perform service in the uniformed services. SCRA generally provides protections for servicemembers on active duty, including reservists and members of the National Guard and Coast Guard called to active duty. Data needed to determine the prevalence of mandatory arbitration clauses and their effect on the outcomes of servicemembers' employment and consumer claims under USERRA and SCRA are insufficient or do not exist. Officials from DOD, DOL, and DOJ told us their data systems are not set up to track these clauses. Further, no data exist for claims settled without litigation or abandoned by servicemembers. Finally, data on arbitrations are limited because they are often private proceedings that the parties involved agree to keep confidential. Servicemembers are among millions of Americans who enter into contracts or agreements with mandatory arbitration clauses. For example, these provisions may be included in the contracts servicemembers sign when they enter the civilian workforce, obtain a car loan, or lease an apartment. These contracts generally require disputes to be resolved in private proceedings with arbitrators rather than in court. Due to concerns these clauses may not afford servicemembers certain employment and consumer rights, Congress included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 for GAO to study their effects on servicemembers' ability to file claims under USERRA and SCRA. This report examines (1) the effect mandatory arbitration has on servicemembers' ability to file claims and obtain relief for violations of USERRA and SCRA, and (2) the extent to which data are available to determine the prevalence of mandatory arbitration clauses and their effect on servicemember claims. GAO reviewed federal laws, court cases, and regulations, as well as agency documents, academic and industry research, and articles on the claims process. GAO interviewed officials from DOD, DOL, DOJ, and other agencies, academic researchers, and a range of stakeholders representing servicemembers, businesses, attorneys, and arbitration firms. GAO also identified and evaluated potential sources of data on servicemembers' employment and consumer claims collected by federal agencies and the firms that administer arbitrations or maintained in court records. For more information, contact Kris T. Nguyen at (202) 512-7215 or NguyenTT@gao.gov.
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  • Technology Assessment Design Handbook
    In U.S GAO News
    The Technology Assessment (TA) Design Handbook identifies tools and approaches GAO staff and others can consider in the design of robust and rigorous technology assessments. The handbook underscores the importance of TA design (Chapter 1), outlines the process of designing TAs (Chapter 2), and describes approaches for mitigating select TA design and implementation challenges (Chapter 3). While the primary audience of this handbook is GAO staff, other organizations may also find portions of this handbook useful as they consider or conduct TAs. This is an update to the handbook published in December 2019, based on the experiences of GAO teams and a review of relevant literature and comments submitted by external experts and the public between December 2019 and December 2020. The handbook identifies three general design stages, as shown in the figure below. The handbook also highlights seven cross-cutting considerations for designing TAs: the iterative nature of TA design, congressional and policymakers' interests, resources, independence, engaging internal and external stakeholders, potential challenges, and communication strategy. In addition, the handbook provides a high-level process for developing policy options, as a tool for analyzing and articulating a range of possible actions a policymaker could consider that may enhance the benefits or mitigate the challenges of a technology. Steps in developing policy options include, as applicable: determining the potential policy objective; gathering evidence; identifying possible policy options and the relevant dimensions along which to analyze them; analyzing policy options; and presenting the results of the analysis. Summary of Key Stages of Technology Assessment Design We found that GAO TAs can use a variety of design approaches and methods. The handbook includes TA design and methodology examples, along with example objectives commonly found in GAO TAs, such as: describe a technology, assess opportunities and challenges of a technology, and assess policy implications or options. For example, some GAO TAs include an objective related to describing the status and feasibility of a technology, which GAO teams have addressed by using methodologies such as expert panels, interviews, literature and document reviews, site visits, and determining the technology readiness level. Also included in the handbook are examples of TA design and implementation challenges, along with possible mitigation strategies. We identified four general categories of challenges: (1) ensuring that the design and implementation of TAs result in useful products for Congress and other policymakers; (2) determining the policy objective and measuring potential effects; (3) researching and communicating complicated issues; and (4) engaging relevant stakeholders. For example, allowing sufficient time for writing, review, and any needed revisions is one potential mitigation strategy that could help teams write simply and clearly about technical subjects and ensure that the design and implementation of TAs result in useful products for Congress and other policymakers. In 2019, GAO created the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team to expand its work on cutting-edge science and technology issues, and to provide oversight, insight, and foresight for science and technology. TAs can be used to strengthen decision-making, enhance knowledge and awareness, and provide early insights into the potential effects of technology. Systematically designing a TA can enhance its quality, credibility, and usefulness; ensure independence of the analysis; and ensure effective use of resources. Under Comptroller General Authority, we developed this handbook by generally following the format of the 2012 GAO methodology transfer paper, Designing Evaluations. Below is a summary of the approach we used to affirm and document TA design steps and considerations for this handbook. Reviewed select GAO documents, including Designing Evaluations (GAO-12-208G), published GAO TAs, select GAO products using policy analysis approaches to present policy options, and other GAO reports Reviewed select Office of Technology Assessment reports Reviewed select Congressional Research Service reports Reviewed select English-language literature regarding TAs and related to development and analysis of policy options Consulted with external experts and performed outreach, including holding an expert meeting to gather input on TA design, soliciting comments from external experts who contributed to GAO TAs published since 2015, and soliciting comments from the public Reviewed experiences of GAO teams that have successfully assessed and incorporated policy options into GAO products and TA design, including challenges to TA design and implementation and possible solutions GAO is not making any recommendations. For more information, contact Timothy M. Persons or Karen L. Howard at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov or howardk@gao.gov.
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