Information Technology:

Information Resource Management Internal Control Issues

GAO-05-288R: Published: Mar 10, 2005. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 2005.

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In a recently completed report for Congress, we evaluated how the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Housing Service (RHS) makes eligibility determinations for its rural housing programs. As part of that review, we used 2000 census data to determine the populations of the rural areas that received RHS housing program loans and grants. We obtained information on the RHS loans and grants provided to communities, from October 1998 through April 2004, from databases maintained by USDA's Information Resource Management (IRM) in St. Louis, Missouri. As with any system, the accuracy of the data and the process used for entry affects reliability and usefulness for management and reporting purposes. During our review, we identified several issues that raised concerns about the accuracy of the information in the IRM databases. For example, while we originally intended to geocode (that is, match) 5 years of the national RHS housing loan and grant portfolio to specific communities, the time needed to ensure the reliability of the data required us to limit much of our analysis to five states (Arizona, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio). This report is a follow-up on our report to Congress, and its purpose is to discuss the implications of the data issues for the management and reporting functions of the Administrator, Rural Housing Service. In this report, we describe (1) the types of inaccuracies we encountered with the RHS data and (2) what, if any, reviews and systems controls are in place to detect or control database errors.

Our analysis of information in USDA's IRM loan and grant databases raised concerns about the accuracy of the databases. In reviewing 29,000 records for five states we found incorrect, incomplete, and inconsistent entries. For example, over 8 percent of the community names or zip codes were incorrect. Additionally, inconsistent spellings of community names distorted the number of unique communities in the database. More than 400 entries lacked sufficient information (i.e., street addresses, community names, and zip codes) that are needed to identify the community to which the loan or grant had been made. As a result, some communities served by RHS were double counted, others could not be counted, and the ability to analyze the characteristics of communities served was compromised. Because data from these systems are used to inform Congress, senior agency management, and the public about the reach and effectiveness of RHS programs, eliminating erroneous data will help ensure that key decisions and analyses are reliably supported. However, we found RHS lacks appropriate reviews and database entry processes that could prevent or detect inaccurate or incomplete data in its normal course of business. For example, RHS does not have procedures for second-party review of the data in IRM systems. Moreover, while the databases have edit functions in place that are intended to prevent the entry of nonconforming data (such as the entry of a community name in a street address field), the functions are not preventing incorrect or incomplete entries.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve data entry and accuracy and, in turn, better ensure accurate internal reporting and reporting to Congress, the Administrator, RHS, should issue an Administrative Notice to field management and staff explaining how data are used for management and reporting purposes and advising them of the need to establish a second-party review to help ensure that data in the three IRM databases are accurate and complete.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Rural Housing Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 24, 2005, the RHS Administrator issued a memo to all State Directors on entering accurate address into its 3 database systems. The memo states that based on a recent audit by the Government Accountability Office and an analysis by Rural Development staff, it was found that a portion of the addresses in the 3 systems contain inaccurate or incomplete property addresses and are not able to be geocoded and accurately mapped. He wrote that it is imperative that address information be entered in the systems accurately, completely, and uniformly so that Rural Development has precise address information in its loan and grant databases. He specified that his memo was primarily concerned with entering new addresses into the 3 production systems. He also specified that all new property addresses must first be verified at a specific website as a second party verification method to help ensure data integrity in the 3 databases.

    Recommendation: To improve data entry and accuracy and, in turn, better ensure accurate internal reporting and reporting to Congress, the Administrator, RHS, should require that each state office correct errors in existing information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Rural Housing Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2006, RHS reported that it was in the process of upgrading the 3 data systems to automatically verify the property addresses when they are entered into the system. RHS's Deputy Administrator for Single Family Housing wrote that the system enhancement will geocode every address as it is entered or updated in the systems and provide the user with the geo-coding results and that the user could then use the geo-coding information to modify or correct the address originally entered if there is a discrepancy. In August 2006, RHS reported that 2 of the 3 systems were in operation and could geocode over 99 percent of the properties to at least the 5 digit zip code, The 3rd system was completed in the Fall of 2006.

    Recommendation: To improve data entry and accuracy and, in turn, better ensure accurate internal reporting and reporting to Congress, the Administrator, RHS, should take corrective action to ensure that system edit functions are in place and properly functioning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Rural Housing Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2006, RHS reported that it was in the process of upgrading the 3 data systems to automatically verify the property addresses when they are entered into the system. RHS's Deputy Administrator for Single Family Housing wrote that the system enhancement will geocode every address as it is entered or updated in the systems and provide the user with the geo-coding results and that the user could then use the geo-coding information to modify or correct the address originally entered if there is a discrepancy. In August 2006, RHS reported that 2 of the 3 systems were in operation and could geocode over 99 percent of the properties to at least the 5 digit zip code, The 3rd system was completed in the fall of 2006. RHS has now implemented edit functions for its systems whereby system users get an error message if an exact match is not found for the address entered. Users can then use the information provided to correct the address entered or research the address to obtain the accurate address, thereby improving system accuracy.

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