Federal Real Property:

Corps of Engineers Needs to Improve the Reliability of Its Real Property Disposal Data

GAO-08-349: Published: May 9, 2008. Publicly Released: May 9, 2008.

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Unreliable real property data has been a long-standing problem for federal landholding agencies. Under the President's real property initiative, agencies are being held accountable for, among other things, improving accuracy of their real property inventory and disposing of unneeded property. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), the fourth largest landholding agency, uses the Real Estate Management Information System (REMIS) for recording its civil works inventory. GAO was asked to determine whether REMIS could provide reliable information on the Corps' civil works land disposals from fiscal years 1996 through 2006. GAO's work involved comparison analyses of REMIS disposal data and other Corps reported disposal data, reviews of Corps' real property policies and guidance, and interviews with Corps officials at headquarters, three divisions, four districts, and the Real Estate Systems National Center (RESNC), which manages REMIS.

REMIS did not provide reliable information on the Corps' civil works land disposals from fiscal years 1996 through 2006, or on the land that the Corps owned as of September 30, 2006. Unreliable land disposal data impair the usefulness of REMIS as a record of current inventory and as a source of data that would be useful for budgeting purposes and the strategic management of landholdings. The following contributed to problems with data reliability: The Corps did not maintain internal controls over REMIS disposal data. Corps policy held district real estate officials accountable for the reliability of REMIS data, but in two of four districts GAO contacted the individual recording land disposal data was also checking the data against documentation such as titles and transfer forms. Dividing data entry and data checking responsibilities is an essential internal control activity. Corps policy also required division real estate staff to ensure the reliability of REMIS data recorded by their constituent districts, but the three divisions GAO contacted did not review REMIS disposal data. The design of the REMIS disposal module, a software application that captures disposal data that users enter, did not follow a best practice, commonly referred to as data normalization. Data normalization organizes data according to rules designed to minimize duplication and redundancies. By not following this best practice, users querying REMIS faced the problem of retrieving inconsistent data. For example, when RESNC officials queried REMIS for specific real property information by district, RESNC officials obtained results that differed from those obtained by district officials. Land disposal dates in REMIS were missing or sometimes represented the date when district real estate officials entered the land disposal rather than when the disposal occurred. The vast majority, or about 89 percent, of all disposal records within REMIS did not have disposal dates. When the records contained dates, large numbers of disposals (accounting for about 54,000 acres) in fiscal years 2005 and 2006 had occurred as early as 1955. Guidance for processing land disposals in REMIS was unclear. For example, guidance issued in 2004 did not indicate whether some types of disposals, such as transfers to other federal agencies, required a disposal date. New disposal guidance issued in 2007 was also unclear because RESNC, which revised the guidance, did not revise the data entry screens in REMIS. As a result, the guidance and the data entry screens were inconsistent. While the guidance called for entering a disposal date, the REMIS data entry screens did not clearly indicate whether or where users should enter the date. RESNC provided limited REMIS training; 3 of 32 districts that use REMIS received introductory training in 2006 and 2007. RESNC plans to train the New England District and at least one other district in 2008. RESNC also sponsored conferences to update systems administrators and other users on key changes to REMIS, but conference presenters discussed aspects of REMIS that some attendees, including real estate officials from 2 of the districts GAO contacted, considered too advanced--especially for those who had never received introductory training.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2008, we reported that the Corps' Real Estate Management Information System (REMIS) did not provide reliable information on the Corps' civil works land disposals from fiscal years 1996 to 2006, in part, because the Corps did not maintain effective internal controls over REMIS disposal data. In some instances, the Corps had the same person who recorded land disposal data into REMIS was also the person who checked that the REMIS data matched the real estate documentation. Therefore, we recommended that the Corps implement effective internal controls, including the segregation of duties, during the REMIS land disposal process. In 2010, the Corps has implemented a role-based disposal process that now requires three individuals--one each from accounting, finance, and real estate--to be involved in creating, approving, and completing a land disposal transaction in the Corps' REMIS and financial accounting systems. In addition, data entry and data checking responsibilities were divided among these individuals to ensure the segregation of duties. Collectively, the Corps' actions will help improve the accuracy of REMIS land disposal data and make it a more accurate record of current inventory and a useful tool for Corps decision makers.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of REMIS land disposal data for determining how much land the Corps currently owns and for budgeting and strategic land management purposes, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commanding General and Chief of Engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to implement effective internal controls, including segregation of duties and review, over the REMIS land disposal process by incorporating such control into the Corps' real estate policies at those districts and divisions identified in this report and others, where appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army: Corps of Engineers

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to the Corps, the REMIS disposal module is to be redesigned to, among other things, incorporate the data normalization best practice into the module. The Corps requested and received funding to redesign REMIS. However, the Corps has not yet implemented data normalization because of development issues. Development efforts began, but then stopped with the contractor. The Corps is planning to restart development efforts and award a new contract by November 2014.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of REMIS land disposal data for determining how much land the Corps currently owns and for budgeting and strategic land management purposes, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commanding General and Chief of Engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to implement the data normalization best practice in the REMIS database with respect to disposal dates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army: Corps of Engineers

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2008, we reported that the Corps' Real Estate Management Information System (REMIS) did not provide reliable information on the Corps' civil works land disposals from fiscal years 1996 to 2006, in part, because disposal dates were unreliable. For example, some disposal dates were missing or sometimes represented the date when district real estate officials entered the land disposal to adjust the inventory rather than when the disposal actually occurred. Therefore, we recommended that the Corps correct the disposal records that were created in REMIS as part of the efforts to adjust the inventory. In response, the Corps' districts were tasked in 2009 to perform quality checks on their REMIS data and for any missing data, including disposal data, enter the correct information, if available. The Corps' Real Estate Systems National Center, which manages REMIS, also routinely checked the data and notified districts of any data requiring corrections. In 2010, the Department of Defense Inspector General confirmed via anomaly reports that the Corps had competed this effort. As a result, REMIS is a more reliable source of land disposal data that Corps decision makers can use for budgeting and strategic land management purposes.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of REMIS land disposal data for determining how much land the Corps currently owns and for budgeting and strategic land management purposes, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commanding General and Chief of Engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to correct the disposal records that were created in REMIS as part of the efforts to adjust the inventory.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army: Corps of Engineers

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2008, we reported that the Corps' Real Estate Management Information System (REMIS) did not provide reliable information on the Corps' civil works land disposals from fiscal years 1996 to 2006, in part, because the Corps's guidance for processing land disposals in REMIS was unclear. For instance, when the Corps issued land disposal guidance in 2007, it did not revise the REMIS data entry computer screens to match the guidance. This inconsistency between the guidance and the REMIS screens created confusion that affected the reliability of the disposal data. Therefore, we recommended that the Corps issue clear guidance for entering land disposal dates in the REMIS disposal process. In response, the Corps no longer uses one of the REMIS disposal data entry screens--an action it said it was evaluating at the time we issued our report. The Corp also updated its guidance in 2011 that ensured land disposal dates were recorded in REMIS. Collectively, the Corps' actions will help improve the accuracy of REMIS land disposal data and make it a more accurate record of current inventory and a useful tool for Corps decision makers.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of REMIS land disposal data for determining how much land the Corps currently owns and for budgeting and strategic land management purposes, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commanding General and Chief of Engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue clear guidance for entering land disposal dates in the REMIS land disposal process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army: Corps of Engineers

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2008, we reported that the Corps' Real Estate Management Information System (REMIS) did not provide reliable information on the Corps' civil work land disposals due, in part, to limited training provided to REMIS users in Corps districts. We stated that federal managers should demonstrate a commitment to the competence of their employees and provide employees with the training they need to accomplish their assigned duties. Therefore, we recommended that the Corps provide and require introductory and refresher training that covers how to correctly enter land disposal dates in REMIS. In response to our recommendation, the Corps provided REMIS training to 5 districts in fiscal year 2010--an increase in the number of districts per year that received training. The Corps also established a Real Estate Continuing Education and Training Program, which includes a mix of computer-based training, a new user manual, on line help content, instructor-led classroom training, and a training plan for all Corps districts. This training program will help improve the accuracy of REMIS land disposal records.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of REMIS land disposal data for determining how much land the Corps currently owns and for budgeting and strategic land management purposes, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commanding General and Chief of Engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide and require introductory and periodic refresher training that covers how to correctly enter land disposal dates in REMIS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army: Corps of Engineers

 

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