GAO: Forest Service slow to implement needed management reforms

More than a decade after government researchers first called on the Forest Service to develop a system for linking performance goals to financial planning, the agency is still "years away" from acting on the advice, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

In reports and congressional testimony dating back to 1991, GAO has recommended that the Forest Service adopt a performance accountability system that will help managers tie budget and planning decisions to the agency's success in meeting various goals. The Forest Service continues to "study and restudy" the issue, according to the latest GAO report (03-503), but has not made any concrete progress.

Without such a system, the Forest Service will not be able to "provide Congress and the public with a clear understanding of what its 30,000 employees accomplish with the approximately $5 billion it receives every year," according to the report, which is based on research conducted from August 2002 to March 2003. The agency, which is part of the Agriculture Department, manages 192 million acres of land, including 155 national forests.

By September 2002, the agency had developed a draft plan for a performance accountability system, the report said. But Forest Service managers never came to a consensus on whether to adopt the plan. This is not surprising, according to GAO, since the Forest Service's field managers are relatively independent and it is unclear where the decision-making authority lies for such a performance accountability system.

At the same time, the Forest Service has created a culture where all managers need to reach a consensus before any decision is made, making it extremely difficult to act on any plan, the report said. The agency should overcome this challenge by placing specific managers in charge of implementing the needed performance accountability system, GAO recommended.

In addition, the Forest Service should place a higher priority on developing the system. Recently the agency has focused on financial management, another important issue, the report said. Improved accounting at the Forest Service helped the Agriculture Department earn its first clean financial audit ever in fiscal 2002.

But revised budget procedures and a system that helps workers schedule their time more efficiently, both part of financial management reforms, will have much more of an impact if they are coupled with a performance accountability system, GAO said.

In response to the report, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth pledged to act "aggressively to implement the GAO's recommendations." The agency will develop a new, "comprehensive plan" for a performance accountability system, and this plan will include "milestones, due dates and assigned accountability to ensure the timely implementation of an effective [system]."

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