Sneak Preview: GAO Urges Action on Key Open Recommendations

Jerry Ashworth
May 7, 2020 at 14:55:49 ET
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(The following was exempted from a recent article that will be published in the Federal Grants Management Handbook and Single Audit Information Service.) The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is calling for six federal agencies to respond to high-priority recommendations it made in its reports over the past several years, as many of these reports pertain to the need to reduce improper payments and address weaknesses in federal grant program oversight.

Some of these open recommendations have remained outstanding for several years. In its recent report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), for example, GAO referenced an October 2016 report in which GAO urged USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to collect and disseminate information among state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) agencies on promising practices that could help improve data matching processes (i.e., matching information about applicants and recipients against various data sources) because “data matching is a tool that has the potential to help SNAP agencies increase program integrity, as well as improve administrative efficiency and reduce household burden.” GAO contended that this process would reduce improper payments in the SNAP program, which recorded about $4 billion in improper payments in federal fiscal year (FY) 2018.

Although FNS officials told GAO in February that they were continuing to implement this recommendation through a multiyear study that will catalog and describe how state SNAP agencies are using data matching practices to enhance program integrity, they added that the study would not be completed until this spring or summer, at which time they would determine what information to disseminate to state agencies.

GAO also discussed an August 2013 report in which it recommended that USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) reduce improper payments in farm and conservation programs by implementing a process to verify accountants’ and attorneys’ statements regarding program participants’ income. Although USDA officials agreed with this recommendation when the report was released, the agency changed its position in 2017 due to “the sensitive nature of questioning accountants’ and attorneys’ professional judgement.” Although the agency did not plan to take any action on this recommendation, GAO maintained that doing so would reduce the likelihood of improper payments.

“We found that, when relying on accountants’ and attorneys’ statements to verify participants’ incomes, FSA state offices sometimes accepted statements that did not meet agency guidance or contained errors, resulting in some questionable eligibility determinations and potential payments to participants whose income exceeded statutory limits,” GAO said. “Given our findings, we believe a process to verify their (accountants’ and attorneys’) statements is needed and would be an appropriate action for the agency to take to protect the integrity of these programs.”

GAO also noted open recommendations from a February 2017 report that it said “could help reasonably assure the effective use of federal funds, reduce federal improper payments and improve oversight of the federal funds the department has awarded to nonfederal entities.” GAO urged USDA’s Rural Development and FNS to design or revise their policies and procedures to help ensure that they meet the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) requirements for (1) award recipients to submit single audit reports, and (2) management decisions related to single audit findings to contain the necessary elements and be issued in a timely manner. Officials from both FNS and Rural Development told GAO they plan to revise their guidances in response to the recommendations by the end of FY 2020.

(The full version of this story has now been made available to all for a limited time here.)

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