COVID-19 Spotlights Several Challenges at Interior

Published: July 15, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisCoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicGovernment PerformanceDOISpending Trends

Interior’s IG identifies financial, programmatic and IT challenges in implementing CARES Act funding as part of the agency’s COVID-19 response efforts.

Key Takeaways:

  • The IG identified top management challenges at DOI in response to COVID-19 including susceptible financial management, balancing the health and wellness of employees and the public at national lands and parks, and exposed cyber weaknesses in the agency’s systems.
  • DOI contract spending to date reflects the priorities and challenges identified by the IG in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each month, the Department of Interior’s Inspector General (IG) publishes progress updates on the agency’s COVID-19 response efforts, including Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding allocations by the agency. Congress appropriated $756M to DOI under the CARES Act, primarily to disperse aid to Native American populations through the agency’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Bureau of Education (BIE). At the request of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), the latest report issued by the IG identifies top management challenges DOI is facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report reveals financial, programmatic and IT concerns in Interior’s response efforts to the virus.

Responsibly Reaching DOI’s Vulnerable Population

From a financial perspective, the IG found that DOI faces a heightened risk in the waste, fraud and abuse of funds meant to reach its most vulnerable population – those of Indian Country. Specifically, schools in Indian Country require increased resources to accommodate school shutdowns. Furthermore, overcrowded prisons in the region require resources to mitigate the transmission of the virus, including options for home confinement to nonviolent offenders.

Nonetheless, BIA and BIE have historically drawn criticism for the mismanagement of funds. Previous audits and investigations found federally funded programs in Indian Country lacked good stewardship of money leading to, “nepotism; improper payments to related parties; hiring deficiencies; internal control and general financial management deficiencies; lack of transparency, inadequate oversight,” to name just a few. In terms of COVID-19 emergency supplemental funding, the IG finds that it may lead to, “unwarranted price elevation (gouging), unsupported cost claims, sole source contracting, split and duplicative purchases, contracts awarded to companies without prior Federal experience, time sheet forgery, low bids with the expectation to add funds, and the potential for breaches of ethical standards and safeguards.”

The risk of mismanagement of funds runs higher during the pandemic as the IG cites that DOI will receive additional funding to funnel to Indian Country populations from other federal agencies, including $8B from Treasury, $150M form Education and $33M from Health and Human Services.  

Balancing Public, Employee and Land Health

As Interior manages nearly 500 million acres of public land across the U.S., the agency must face numerous decisions in protecting the health of not only its employees and the public, but the health of the lands as well. Facilitating public land access puts the health and safety of the public and employees at risk, while limiting employee presence on public lands and allowing public access jeopardizes the maintenance of the land and its resources.

With an estimated $16B maintenance backlog already at the agency, the potential lack of additional maintenance due to the pandemic will lead to higher costs at DOI, particularly without employee monitoring. Challenges in acquiring Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and cleaning products, a prerequisite to return employees to public lands, further impairs agency response efforts to COVID-19.

IT and Cyber Weaknesses Further Exposed by the Pandemic

The federated nature of the Interior Department gives way to a complex maze of IT systems throughout an agency facing struggles in enterprise IT and cyber management. Previous audits and investigations of DOI found that the agency lacks a reliable IT management framework, leading to weakened protection of its systems. In particular, the GAO and IG identified a lack in establishing an Enterprise Risk-Management (ERM) plan to uniformly detect and respond to cyber threats at the agency.

The need for remote access to agency systems during the pandemic adds to DOI’s challenges in protecting its IT infrastructure, potentially exposing crucial data to bad actors. Additionally, the number of scams and phishing attempts across the federal government is amplified during the pandemic, further exacerbating DOI’s cyber challenges.

DOI COVID-19 Contract Spending

As of July 13, Interior reported an estimated $13M in contract spending related to COVID-19. Of that, the Bureau of Indian Affairs made nearly 25% of the awards. Peak spending in COVID-19 obligations occurred in April 2020 at the agency, with a steady decline in spending since then. Spending by primary requirement reveals Information Technology (IT) and Medical & Scientific Equipment make up the bulk of Interior’s COVID-19 spending:

Source: Deltek, FPDS

Those obligations identified as IT primarily consist of peripheral device purchases including, laptops monitors, docking stations and mobile devices, likely to accommodate remote work for its employees. Additional IT orders included hotspot purchases and educational software licenses related to Indian Education, and pin pad entrance systems at various DOI work locations. Medical & Scientific Equipment largely includes PPE, particularly throughout National Park Service locations. COVID-19 pre-screening services and extra janitorial and deep cleaning services obligations represent the bulk of spending under Professional Services.