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GAO Reports Shortcomings in Federal Geospatial Coordination

Posted By John Palatiello, Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The long-awaited Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of Federal geospatial coordination – Geospatial Information: OMB and Agencies Need to Make Coordination a Priority to Reduce Duplication has been released.

The report is a rather damning indictment of the agencies' activities. There has been little improvement in coordination since the last time GAO looked at this (Better Coordination Needed to Identify and Reduce Duplicative Investments,GAO-04-703, June 23, 2004), and in some aspects, the situation has worsened.

MAPPS was consulted in the development of this study by Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), the panel’s ranking Republican, who requested the GAO review. Their committee has broad jurisdiction, including governmentwide policies, and has the ability to facilitate oversight and investigations of government activities.

While the report does not mention H.R. 4233, the "Map It Once, Use It Many Times” Act, introduced by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over USGS, the home of the Federal Geographic Data Committee’s executive secretariat, GAO suggests that reforms, reorganizations and processes called for in the bill be implemented. Not the least of which are improving coordination and reducing duplication, to include a national strategy for coordinating geospatial investments.

Nor did GAO discuss the enactment of section 100220 of PL 112-141, the provision in the FEMA portion of the MAP-21 Act that calls for an innovative, coordinated funding pool for the collection of elevation data for flood mapping and other purposes. Other major items missed by GAO were reorganization ideas, such as a consolidated surveying and mapping administration, as was previously recommended by OMB in 1973 (the OMB report is not available on-line, but a history of federal mapping and geospatial coordination is found at http://www.fgdc.gov/ngac/a-history-of-spatial-data-coordination.pdf) and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) (http://www.napawash.org/pc_management_studies/napa_report.html). Moreover, while GAO dedicated considerable attention to the Department of Commerce and its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), GAO did not address the inefficiency, waste and duplication in NOAA’s aerial photography function (http://www.oig.doc.gov/Pages/LightAircraftFleetShouldBePrivatized-PerformanceAuditNOAA-STD-9952.aspx). Furthermore, there was no mention of the duplication that exists due to the interpretation by the Census Bureau (also part of the Commerce Department) of Title 13 restrictions on sharing geospatial data. Finally, while the report has a detailed discussion of parcel data, it fails to mention section 1094(3) of Public Law 111-203, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (commonly referred to as "Dodd-Frank”), which amended the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA), to authorize the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to collect the "parcel number to permit geocoding” on mortgage transactions.

I was disappointed that GAO only interviewed me and apparently did not talk to anyone else in the private sector. The study team did not address issues I raised, such as how the government duplicates and competes with the private sector and how the language in OMB Circular A-16, or its Supplemental Guidance, on such duplication is either insufficient or ignored.

To be fair, there are positive things happening within various agencies, and progress is being made, to improve coordination, avoid duplication and enhance opportunities for the private sector. GAO acknowledged the USGS effort on a National Enhanced Elevation Assessment, which MAPPS has supported, that effort’s maturity into a viable 3DEP initiative was not mentioned. MAPPS has worked closely to make 3DEP a reality, and the MAP-21 provision, mentioned above, is a notable development. GAO endorsed the establishment or designation of a senior geospatial official in cabinet agencies, something MAPPS has long advocated. It was MAPPS, after all, that was instrumental in securing legislation that created a Geospatial Management Office in the Department of Homeland Security. Moreover, the successful coordination and partnership efforts carried out by the NOAA Coastal Services Center through its "Digital Coast" activity, which MAPPS has called a "best practices” model in testimony before Congress, also did not attract GAO’s attention. Additionally, GAO failed to recognize that USGS, through the Geospatial Information Office at Department of the Interior and the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), is developing a "Data as a Service” component to the Geospatial Platform that will enable agencies to utilize QBS, ID/IQ contracts and provide substantive opportunities for numerous private sector firms.

Senator Lieberman is retiring and while Senator Collins is term-limited as the ranking member of the governmental affairs committee, she is expected to remain on the panel. Nevertheless, the report provides valuable information for oversight and reform by Congress and the Obama Administration. Moreover, it throws another log on the fire of examples of government duplication compiled by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) , who is next in line to succeed Senator Collins on the GOP side of the committee. The new chairman is expected to be Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), whom MAPPS has assisted with issues such as a geo-based federal land inventory.

The Senate committee is well aware of many of these issues, and discussed them with GAO. The committee may request subsequent reports that will go into further detail on a wide range of geospatial areas. And oversight of geospatial management will continue to be a priority for the House subcommittee in the 113th Congress.

Tags:  Duplication  GAO  Geospatial  Government 

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