Forest Service:

Better Planning, Guidance, and Data Are Needed to Improve Management of the Competitive Sourcing Program

GAO-08-195: Published: Jan 22, 2008. Publicly Released: Feb 21, 2008.

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Competitive sourcing is aimed at promoting competition between federal employees and the private sector as a way to improve government operations. Key work activities--those that are either inherently governmental or core to the agency's mission--are generally exempt from competitions. In fiscal year 2004, Congress began placing spending limitations on the Forest Service's competitive sourcing program because of concerns about how the program was managed. Also, like other agencies, the Forest Service must report annually to Congress on the savings achieved from any competitions it conducted. GAO was asked to determine the extent to which the Forest Service has (1) plans and guidance to help implement its competitive sourcing program effectively and (2) sufficient cost data to ensure that it complied with its spending limitations and accurately reported its savings to Congress for fiscal years 2004 through 2006. To answer these objectives, GAO examined the agency's strategic plan, guidance, and available cost data for competitive sourcing and interviewed key agency officials.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service lacks a realistic strategic plan and adequate guidance to help ensure that it can effectively implement its competitive sourcing program. For example, the Forest Service's current strategic plan is unrealistic because it does not take into account the likely availability of personnel and funding resources needed to implement the plan. Furthermore, the Forest Service lacks sufficient guidance on identifying key work activities that should be excluded from competitions. Although Forest Service officials do not believe that inappropriate work activities have been included in competitions that it has held, without clear guidance the Forest Service remains at risk of doing so. The agency also lacks a strategy on how to assess the cumulative effect that competitions could have on its ability to fight wildland fires and respond to other emergencies. Outsourcing a large number of federal jobs to the private sector could, over time, reduce the number of available responders. For fiscal years 2004 through 2006, the Forest Service lacked sufficiently complete and reliable cost data to (1) demonstrate its compliance with statutory spending limitations on its competitive sourcing activities and (2) accurately report competitive sourcing savings to Congress. Regarding compliance with spending limitations, the Forest Service did not collect cost data on all activities related to competitive sourcing because it believed that some costs were not subject to the limitations. For example, the Forest Service did not collect data on employees' salaries related to studying the feasibility of conducting a competition--a key component of its competitive sourcing process. GAO has interpreted the statutory spending limitations to generally apply to all costs attributable to the Forest Service's competitive sourcing program. Moreover, because the Forest Service's cost data used to determine compliance with statutory spending limitations were not reliable, the Forest Service cannot know if it exceeded the limitations. Regarding the savings achieved from its competitions, the Forest Service reported to Congress a savings totaling over $38 million between fiscal years 2004 and 2006. However, the Forest Service could not provide GAO with sufficient data or the methodology it used to calculate savings derived from competitions. In addition, GAO found that the Forest Service did not consider certain costs, which were substantial, in its savings calculations. As a result, Congress may not have an accurate measure of the savings from the Forest Service's competitive sourcing competitions during this period.

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 the Forest Service's management of its competitive sourcing program, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to collect complete and reliable cost data on competitive sourcing activities to ensure that the Forest Service is able to comply with the appropriations acts' spending limitations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress prohibited spending on the Competitive Sourcing Program at the Forest Service for FY 2008 - 2010 and the Forest Service has declined to ask for funding in FY 2011. Forest Service Officials told us that there are no plans to reinstate the program and thus no plans to implement our recommendations.

    Recommendation: To improve the Forest Service's management of its competitive sourcing program, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to develop a strategy for assessing the cumulative effect of competitive sourcing competitions on the Forest Service's firefighting and emergency response capabilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress prohibited spending on the Competitive Sourcing Program at the Forest Service for FY 2008 - 2010 and the Forest Service has declined to ask for funding in FY 2011. Forest Service Officials told us that there are no plans to reinstate the program and thus no plans to implement our recommendations.

    Recommendation: To improve the Forest Service's management of its competitive sourcing program, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to develop clear guidance on when and how to identify inherently governmental and core-commercial activities so they are excluded from competitive sourcing competitions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress prohibited spending on the Competitive Sourcing Program at the Forest Service for FY 2008 - 2010 and the Forest Service has declined to ask for funding in FY 2011. Forest Service Officials told us that there are no plans to reinstate the program and thus no plans to implement our recommendations.

    Recommendation: To improve the Forest Service's management of its competitive sourcing program, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to revise the Green Plan to establish an implementation schedule that takes into account resource limitations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress prohibited spending on the Competitive Sourcing Program at the Forest Service for FY 2008 - 2010 and the Forest Service has declined to ask for funding in FY 2011. Forest Service Officials told us that there are no plans to reinstate the program and thus no plans to implement our recommendations.

    Recommendation: To improve the Forest Service's management of its competitive sourcing program, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to ensure that the savings reported to Congress are a realistic measure of the actual savings resulting from A-76 competitions by (1) verifying the accuracy of the data and (2) including costs such as planning costs and transition costs when calculating the savings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress prohibited spending on the Competitive Sourcing Program at the Forest Service for FY 2008 - 2010 and the Forest Service has declined to ask for funding in FY 2011. Forest Service Officials told us that there are no plans to reinstate the program and thus no plans to implement our recommendations.

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