A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the U.S. Coast Guard may be using inaccurate data to plan technology investments and determine staff’s mission readiness.
The watchdog reviewed the Coast Guard’s efforts to respond to the pandemic, including safeguarding staff and providing telework options. It found that the Coast Guard took steps to safeguard its personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic by updating its policies and guidance, expanding telework, and administering COVID-19 vaccines, among other efforts. In its July 16 report, GAO gives an example of the Coast Guard’s COVID-19 Crisis Action Team which comprises targeted working groups to address COVID-19-related issues and develop new policies and guidance.
GAO has previously reviewed pandemic response efforts at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration.
The Coast Guard had a total of at least 2,982 confirmed COVID-19 cases and three reported deaths as of April 30, 2021. From December 2020 through April 2021, the Coast Guard administered vaccines to 35,439 (about 64 percent) of its personnel.
GAO’s review found that the Coast Guard took actions to address a variety of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, officials from all nine sectors (i.e., operational field units) interviewed identified challenges with information technology system functionality when the Coast Guard expanded telework in March 2020. This included insufficient network bandwidth and a lack of laptop computers. To address these challenges, the Coast Guard increased network bandwidth to allow more simultaneous users and provided additional laptops to field offices.
The Coast Guard faced other challenges during the pandemic, including ensuring personnel continued to receive necessary training and on-the-job experience.
GAO found that the Coast Guard lacks controls over telework documentation and its personnel data are not reliable. First, the Coast Guard expanded its telework program during the pandemic, but lacks controls to ensure that teleworking personnel have valid and current telework agreements in place. Officials told GAO that high levels of participation in its telework program may continue following the pandemic. Ensuring that all personnel who telework have valid and current telework agreements in place would therefore provide the Coast Guard with the information needed to make decisions that require telework data, such as for space planning or technology investments. Second, the Coast Guard modified its personnel system to allow personnel to self-report and update their COVID-19 and telework statuses. GAO analyzed these data from April 2020 through April 2021 and found they were not reliable due to missing data and concerns about accuracy. In particular, Coast Guard officials could not provide assurance or evidence that weekly audits purposefully designed to verify the accuracy and completeness of these data were being conducted.
To address the shortcomings revealed by the review, GAO says the Coast Guard should develop and implement additional internal controls to ensure that all personnel participating in the Coast Guard’s telework program have valid telework agreements in place. In addition, the watchdog wants the Coast Guard to develop and implement additional internal controls to ensure that supervisors review telework agreements at least annually and document these reviews.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred, stating that the Coast Guard’s existing telework program policy requires that all participating personnel have valid telework agreements in place, and that these agreements are to be reviewed at least annually. DHS also stated that the Coast Guard plans to issue a Coast Guard-wide notification on an annual basis to remind personnel about these telework program requirements.
The Coast Guard also agreed with GAO’s recommendation to ensure that required weekly audits are being conducted to verify the accuracy and completeness of data on the COVID-19 and telework statuses of Coast Guard personnel.
GAO will continue to monitor DHS’s and the Coast Guard’s efforts in addressing its recommendations.