Rescue swimmers and aircrewmen from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., conduct hoist training evolutions June 23, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ross Ruddell)

USCG Defends Progress on Metrics as ‘Lives on the Line,’ Admiral Tells Congress

A Coast Guard official on Thursday assured Congress that the USCG has taken seriously recommendations from the GAO about performance data as “lives on the line in these mission sets.”

Rear Adm. Linda Fagan, deputy Coast Guard commandant for operations, policy and capabilities, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Coast Guard Subcommittee that the USCG “operates in an increasingly complex world and strives to make the best use of limited resources we have at our disposal.”

“Through a deliberate approach known as the Standard Operational Planning Process, we continuously evaluate maritime threats and opportunities and develop plans to achieve mission success. Using national, departmental, service strategies as GAO posts, we’ve leveraged the intelligence committee and its planning process to employ a risk-based approach to prioritize assets where they are needed the most,” Fagan said. “Tactical commanders benefit from this process and have the flexibility to allocate resources on scene, ultimately allowing us to address maritime threats with the greatest precision and effect. The planning process is guided by annual strategic review to assess performance with robust metrics, identify operational gaps and delineate steps needed to close them.”

Fagan said the Coast Guard is “appreciative” of the Government Accountability Office’s recent review of the performance assessment system “and we are working to incorporate the recommendations of continual improvement in this regard.”

“The agility that this system provides was applied during the hurricane responses this past summer when we mobilized and deployed nearly 3,000 members and helped rescue over 11,000 people in need,” she stressed, calling the performance measures “a result of a responsive, transparent repeatable planning process.”

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the dangers these measures reflect to our men and women who conduct frontline operations. And the decisions we make based on these metrics drive operational change in the field that affect our Coast Guard members. These are not just numbers; there are both public and Coast Guard lives on the line in these mission sets.”

The USCG’s strategic planning process works, the admiral told lawmakers, as “history has proven that a responsive, capable and agile Coast Guard using a deliberate planning process is an indispensable instrument of national security.”

Nathan Anderson, acting director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at GAO, noted that their recent report on commercial fishing vessel safety “illustrates the need for the Coast Guard to improve the completeness of mission data” as “vessel disasters are the leading cost of fatalities among fishers.”

“Although the Coast Guard investigates these incidents, we found that rates of accidents, injuries and fatalities involving commercial fishing vessels cannot be determined. Reliable data are either not maintained or are not collected by the Coast Guard or other federal agencies,” he said. “Having this information could be useful to carrying out that Coast Guard’s marine safety mission. The Coast Guard reported that it is taking some actions to address our recommendations, and we will continue to monitor these actions.”

The GAO review of USCG’s strategic planning “illustrates the need for the Coast Guard to also use data on actual asset performance to inform its allocations of assets to field units,” Anderson told lawmakers. “We found that the Coast Guard’s strategic allocations of assets were based on unrealistic assumptions about the asset performance capacities. They also did not take into account actual asset condition or maintenance needs.”

The review also “illustrates the need for the Coast Guard to also improve the data it uses for establishing its performance goals,” he said.

“For example, the Coast Guard has two performance goals related to its drug interdiction mission. While the two goals capture performance data related to cocaine, they do not capture performance data for any other illegal drugs that the Coast Guard interdicts.”

Anderson said the GAO “found that Coast Guard could do more in terms of collecting, using and improving the transparency of information to help meet its missions.”

Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) slammed the USCG as boasting “horrible” times metrics. “I mean, if this was an F-35 being built or boats being built, which you went through boats being built with no actual boats then being built but spending billions of dollars, that’s what this is coming from,” he said. “There are no metrics for us, for GAO or for the public to see that you’re accomplishing what you’re telling us you’re going to be accomplishing in the future.”

Fagan emphasized that the USCG commandant “has testified and has been very consistent in the need for stable recurring $2 billion CIP, 5 percent annualized O&M growth and the need to begin having stable and recurring money, $300 million a year to begin to back — build, buy back some of the shore side backlog that the service currently has.”

Pressed on delivering a five-year outlook to the committee, Fagan said it’s being prepared with a “sense of urgency and diligence.”

“We understand how critical it is for the oversight and investment decisions that need to be made,” she added. “And we are fully engaged with the budgetary process, sir.”

The GAO official applauded the Coast Guard “for concurring with virtually all of our recommendations on improving data quality in the context of performance goals.”

“I would also like to note that the Coast Guard routinely develops corrective actions and articulates those corrective actions when a goal is unmet. They put these corrective actions into the APR and we applaud them for that,” Anderson said. “I think our points on the corrective action score in terms of those unmet goals is some of the corrective actions aren’t measurable or time-bound and those are criteria that we would like to see for full closure of those recommendations.”

U.S. Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett (D) took a moment to thank Fagan and “your men and women of the Coast Guard” for what they did for her home islands after a devastating hurricane season. “I’ve been grateful for you even bringing me back home once or twice on some of your vessels as I was trying to make my way back home during the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria,” Plaskett said. “So the people of the Virgin Islands are enormously grateful to you all for the work that you have done and continue to do on our islands.”

Plaskett asked about the “the fast cutters that are being used I know in the Virgin Islands,” and “how is the effectiveness of that in comparison to the use of national security cutters or offshore patrol cutters or having a larger amount of cutters to be able to meet the needs of what you see as the national security threat in that region?”

“So the new modernized cutters, national security cutters, operational, the OPCs and the FRCs are incredibly capable assets that with other force packages, aircraft and small boats increase the effect that we’re able to achieve in the mission sets,” Fagan replied. “They’re a national security cutter.”

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) quipped that he’s “not sure that Congresswoman Plaskett cares about icebreakers in the Virgin Islands, maybe.”

“But as you know, the comparison of U.S. capabilities to other Arctic nations, we’re significantly further behind where we are,” he said.

Hunter concluded that “it looks like the Coast Guard is making things harder on itself by not using consistent metrics, by not aligning with DHS and not aligning with us on this committee so we can say, ‘Hey, your outcomes are great.'”

“Because if you look at your missions and you really delve into them and you don’t do the 800 hours versus 500 hours but you look at your outcomes, right, those things that we don’t get all of that GAO was talking about that we would like to start getting,” the chairman said.

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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