Justice Grant Programs:

DOJ Could Improve Decision-Making Documentation and Better Assess Results of DNA Backlog Reduction Program Funds

GAO-13-605: Published: Jul 31, 2013. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2013.

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What GAO Found

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) allocated funding for various DNA and other forensic science activities, with the majority of the available $691 million from fiscal years 2008 through 2012 going to state and local governments to reduce the DNA backlog. Specifically, over this 5-year period, 64 percent was allocated through initiatives that directly benefit state and local efforts to reduce DNA backlogs and build DNA analysis capacity. The largest initiative was NIJ's DNA Backlog Reduction Program, and other DNA backlog initiatives included DNA analysis of cold cases, among others. A smaller portion (31 percent) went to other forensic sciences initiatives, such as research and development and training, although NIJ officials stated that funding these initiatives may have long-term benefits for reducing the DNA backlog. The remainder of the funding went toward other activities, such as management and administration.

NIJ has a process in place to determine DNA and forensic program funding priorities, but its decisions regarding these priorities are not clearly documented. According to NIJ officials, the rationale for funding the DNA Backlog Reduction Program versus other initiatives is documented in briefing slides, but these documents do not show NIJ's rationale for how funding priorities are determined. For example, while the budget documents for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 show the final amounts NIJ decided to allocate to various initiatives, these documents do not provide details on the justifications for how funding levels were determined for each initiative. Without a clearly documented process that demonstrates the rationale for NIJ's annual funding priorities, there is limited transparency regarding how and why the agency is allocating its funding.

NIJ could verify data and revise its performance measure to better assess the DNA Backlog Reduction Program. NIJ assesses performance of this program by requiring grantees to submit reports every 6 months that, in part, outline their progress in meeting program goals and objectives. However, NIJ does not have an approach to verify the reliability of the data--testing data to ensure data quality--and as a result, faces continuing data errors. Verifying these data would help ensure that the data are reliable enough to show that the program is successfully meeting its goals. In addition, NIJ has a performance measure to assess the results of this program--percent of reduction in DNA backlog casework--but it is a projection of DNA casework that grantees expect to complete as opposed to an actual tabulation of completed cases. While measuring annual performance for multiyear grants can be challenging because the completed number of cases is not known until after the grant period closes, taking steps to analyze performance data on actual cases completed could help NIJ to better assess actual results.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since 2008, Congress has appropriated more than $100 million each year to the Department of Justice (DOJ) that may be used, among other things, to reduce DNA backlogs and enhance crime laboratory capacity. NIJ, within DOJ, is responsible for, among other things, providing awards for DNA analysis and forensic activities. NIJ's DNA Backlog Reduction Program was established to provide grants to state and local governments with the intent, in part, of reducing the backlog of DNA samples. The conference report accompanying the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012, mandated GAO to examine, among other things, DNA analysis funds. This report addresses (1) how NIJ has allocated its DNA and forensic program appropriation over the past 5 fiscal years, (2) the extent that NIJ has a process to determine its funding priorities for its DNA and forensic program appropriation, and (3) the extent that NIJ verifies data on grant results submitted by grantees and measures the outcomes of the DNA Backlog Reduction Program. GAO reviewed relevant appropriations, NIJ funding documentation, and data from fiscal years 2008 through 2012, and interviewed NIJ officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that NIJ clearly document the rationale for annual funding priorities, develop a cost-effective approach to verify the reliability of grantee performance data, and revise its performance measure to reflect actual completed cases. DOJ agreed with GAO's recommendations and outlined steps to address them.

For more information, contact Michele Mackin at (202) 512-4841 or MackinM@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2013, we reported that the Department of Justice (DOJ) National Institute of Justice's (NIJ) decision-making process for determining DNA and forensic program funding priorities was not clearly documented. Specifically, we found that NIJ's funding memos in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 did not provide details on the justifications for determining funding for each funding initiative. We recommended that in order to provide greater transparency regarding its funding allocations, NIJ document the rationale for its annual funding priorities. In response, during April 2016, DOJ officials provided us with an updated funding memo outlining NIJ's fiscal year 2016 funding priorities. The funding memo included background information of the funding priorities outlined in the appropriation and a list of proposed allocations for each grant program NIJ officials recommended for the NIJ director to approve. Along with the funding recommendations, NIJ provided detailed information to support the rationale for funding each grant program. As a result, NIJ's new funding memo format with more robust justifications for funding decisions provides greater transparency to both NIJ management and stakeholders for understanding NIJ's rationale for funding decisions.

    Recommendation: In order to provide stakeholders and Congress greater transparency regarding its funding allocations, the Director of NIJ should document the rationale for its annual funding priorities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs: National Institute of Justice

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2013, we reported that the Department of Justice (DOJ) National Institute of Justice (NIJ) was assessing the general quality of the data it used to determine grantees' progress in analyzing DNA cases using NIJ grant funds; however, NIJ could not provide a sufficient level of confidence that the data were reliable enough to show that the DNA backlog reduction program was successfully meeting its goals or reducing the backlog. We recommended that NIJ develop a cost-effective approach to verify DNA performance data submitted by grantees to provide reasonable assurance that such data are sufficiently reliable. In response to our recommendation, NIJ developed a two-stepped approach to improve grantees' data. For its first step in March 2016, NIJ established policies and procedures for its Office of Grants Management to validate grantees' DNA performance data submitted to the agency semi-annually. This verification process will include grants managers approving individual reports based on a set of criteria outlined in the new procedures. For the second step, NIJ awarded a contract to use already-existing DOJ performance technology to collect performance data. Further, the contractor will use this performance technology to conduct a review of the grantees' submitted data to identify potential areas of concern with data reliability and validity. This approach provides reasonable assurance that such data are sufficiently reliable to report progress in reducing the DNA backlog, and will ultimately assist NIJ to better assess whether NIJ's DNA capacity and backlog reduction program is having a measurable impact in reducing the DNA backlog.

    Recommendation: In order to assist Congress and NIJ management and stakeholders to better assess whether NIJ's DNA Backlog Reduction Program is having a measurable impact in reducing the DNA backlog, the Director of NIJ should develop a cost-effective approach to verify performance data submitted by grantees to provide reasonable assurance that such data are sufficiently reliable to report progress in reducing the DNA backlog.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs: National Institute of Justice

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2013, We found that the Department of Justice (DOJ) National Institute of Justice?s (NIJ) performance measure for reducing DNA backlog casework was a projection of DNA cases that grantees expect to complete as opposed to an actual tabulation of completed cases. By relying on projected outcomes, NIJ's performance measure did not demonstrate actual results in meeting DOJ's goal to reduce the DNA backlog, as required by the Government Performance and Results Act. Further, measures that do not provide managers with useful information based on actual results will not alert managers and other stakeholders to the existence of problems with the related programs or help them respond when problems arise. We recommended that NIJ revise its performance measure to include casework actually completed instead of casework that is projected. In response, beginning in fiscal year 2015, NIJ replaced the projection measure with a measure that focuses on the annual percent increase in the number of DNA profiles uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)--a DOJ-sponsored system for collecting and sharing DNA profiles from participating federal, state, and local forensic laboratories. NIJ published this new performance measure in the fiscal year 2017 President's Performance Budget. By using this measure, NIJ believes it can verify actual data and accurately reflect the increasing capacity of forensic DNA laboratories. NIJ stated that this new measure serves as a reasonable proxy for the impact federal funds have on increasing laboratory capacities. While our original recommendation did not prescribe NIJ creating a new performance measure for its progress in reducing the backlog, by replacing the measure that used projected outcomes with this new performance measure that includes actual casework results, the agency has met the intent of the recommendation. As a result, NIJ will be better placed to determine its actual progress to increase forensic laboratories capacity to conduct DNA casework.

    Recommendation: In order to assist Congress and NIJ management and stakeholders to better assess whether NIJ's DNA Backlog Reduction Program is having a measurable impact in reducing the DNA backlog, the Director of NIJ should revise the "percent of reduction in DNA backlog casework" performance measure to include casework actually completed as part of the measure instead of casework that is projected.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs: National Institute of Justice

 

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