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GAO: Actions Needed to Improve USCG’s National Vessel Documentation Center Operations

The Coast Guard requires owners of certain commercial ships and other vessels to obtain vessel documentation—a form of registration. Owners of recreational vessels may also seek documentation to help them secure financing and other advantages.

The Coast Guard’s documentation center generally processes commercial vessels on time but continues to suffer from backlogs for recreational ones. The Coast Guard has switched some staff from commercial to recreational reviews and taken other actions. The Government Accountability Office recommended it review whether the user fees it charges are sufficient to cover the cost of this service and more.

In recent years, the Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC) met workload demands for timely processing of commercial vessel documentation, but not for recreational vessel documentation. From January 2015 through September 2019, its recreational documentation processing time averaged 57 days—about 4 times longer than its 15-day informal target.

  • NVDC officials attributed the current backlogs to performance issues with the Coast Guard’s information technology system for managing vessel documentation. For example, officials stated that there were periods where system performance issues left only about 11 percent of NVDC staff able to access the system, limiting their ability to meet their workload demands.
  • The Coast Guard has generally not conducted operational analyses of its vessel documentation system since 2012. Such analyses are required annually for information technology systems to help ensure they perform as intended. By developing and implementing policies and procedures to ensure the Coast Guard conducts required operational analyses for the system, it will better ensure that potential system performance issues are being addressed on a timely basis.

The Coast Guard has not measured the NVDC’s effectiveness in processing vessel documentation. The service requires its units to report their performance to leadership. However, the NVDC uses an informal target to measure staff timeliness in processing documentation. It has not established formal targets to measure its overall performance. Establishing formal organizational performance targets for its vessel documentation activities—such as quantifiable goals for timeliness and accuracy—would provide the NVDC with a clear baseline by which to measure its effectiveness.

GAO is making seven recommendations to the Coast Guard, including that it develop and implement policies and procedures for conducting operational analyses for its vessel documentation system, and establish formal organizational performance targets for NVDC’s vessel documentation activities. The Coast Guard concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

Read the GAO report

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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