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Friday, October 22, 2021
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GAO Checks DOT’s Progress on Cybersecurity, Safety and Pandemic Preparedness

In April 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified 16 priority recommendations for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Since then, DOT has implemented 6 of those recommendations by, among other things, taking actions to address safety oversight of uncrewed aircraft systems and to prioritize local freight-related congestion in its national freight policy. In June 2021, GAO identified 6 additional priority recommendations for DOT, bringing the total number to 16.

Cybersecurity and IT

Following GAO’s recommendation, DOT updated its Information Technology Risk Management standard operating procedure, which describes, among other things, how the department’s Office of the Chief Information Officer is to coordinate with the office responsible for enterprise risk management (ERM) functions. 

In February 2018, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation, in cooperation with DHS, take steps to consult, as appropriate, with respective sector partners such as DHS and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to develop methods for determining the level and type of cybersecurity framework adoption by entities across the transportation systems sector. DOT is expected to complete the framework survey to develop these methods, which officials said they expected to do by October 2022. And by January 2022, DOT intends to have developed a cybersecurity risk management strategy that includes key required elements, including a statement of departmental risk tolerance and risk mitigation strategies, and a description of acceptable risk assessment methodologies. 

In November 2016, GAO recommended that DOT, as well as four other agencies, implement eight IT workforce planning activities to facilitate a more rigorous analysis of gaps between current skills and future needs, as well as develop a strategy for filling gaps. DOT has since addressed one of the eight recommended IT workforce planning activities—developing competency and staffing requirements. In February 2021, DOT officials stated that the department is continuing its efforts to implement the recommendation and plans to complete final actions by the end of 2021. 

Transportation Safety

In February 2014, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation revise the Safety Measurement System (SMS) methodology to better account for data accuracy and sufficiency limitations in drawing comparisons of safety performance information across motor carriers. The accuracy and sufficiency of data used by the SMS is vital because Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) investigators and their state partners use this system to direct resources to identify unsafe motor carriers with the goal of helping reduce the number of crashes, injuries, and fatalities. However, FMCSA’s ability to target unsafe motor carriers is hindered by insufficient information not accounted for in the SMS methodology, such as variability in the carrier population. The Department did not agree with GAO’s conclusions, and has requested that it close the recommendation as not implemented. However, it is now developing a new methodology in response to a review by the National Academies of Sciences. While DOT has not yet committed to deploying the new methodology, officials said they hope to do so some time in 2021.

In August 2019, GAO recommended that FAA’s Runway Safety Manager establish a plan to assess the effectiveness of all of FAA’s terminal area-safety efforts, including Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X (ASDE-X), and the Runway Safety Program. FAA has many terminal-area safety efforts underway, but the watchdog says it has not as yet assessed their effectiveness. 

Pandemic Preparedness

As far back as December 2015, during the Ebola epidemic, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation work with relevant stakeholders, such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks. Clearly, such a plan would have been hugely beneficial for the coronavirus pandemic. However, although DOT agreed that such a plan is needed, it said the responsibility should lie with HHS. Ultimately, no plan was created by either DOT or HHS, and in wake of the coronavirus outbreak GAO urged Congress in June 2020 to take legislative action to require DOT, HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop such a plan to limit the spread of communicable disease threats and minimize travel and trade impacts.

In the absence of a national aviation-preparedness plan, DOT officials point to ongoing efforts to engage with interagency partners at DHS and HHS, as well as industry stakeholders, to better collaborate on communicable disease response and preparedness as they relate to civil aviation. For example, in July 2020, DOT, HHS, and DHS issued guidance to airports and airlines for implementing measures to mitigate public health risks associated with COVID-19. In addition, in March 2021, FAA issued occupational health and safety guidance to air carriers, which recommends that they incorporate the latest FAA and CDC guidance into their COVID-19 preparedness plans and procedures. DOT should now build on these efforts to create the much needed plan for future communicable disease threats that would incorporate such measures as protocols for responding to the threat and coordination among stakeholders.

Read the full list of priority recommendations and DOT’s responses at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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