Environmental Information

EPA Is Taking Steps to Improve Information Management, but Challenges Remain Gao ID: RCED-99-261 September 17, 1999

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs high-quality environmental information to identify and respond to emerging problems before significant damage is done to the environment. EPA plans to create an office with central responsibility for information management, policy, and technology. This report reviews (1) recent initiatives designed to help EPA improve the accuracy, completeness, and compatibility of its data; (2) the impact of data gaps and inconsistencies on EPA's ability to evaluate and report on the results of its programs under the Government Performance and Results Act; and (3) the major management challenges facing EPA's new central information office. GAO recommends that EPA develop an action plan that describes in detail the strategy, the milestones, and the resources that the new information office will require to help ensure that EPA's environmental and regulatory data are complete, compatible, and accurate.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA has several data improvement initiatives to obtain the environmental information needed to effectively set priorities, assess progress in achieving goals and objectives, and report on accomplishments in a credible way; (2) these initiatives are specifically aimed at identifying critical gaps in EPA's environmental data, developing data standards to enable separately designed databases to operate compatibly with one another, and identifying and correcting inaccuracies; (3) while these initiatives are steps in the right direction, they are limited in scope and do not provide the overall strategy needed to ensure the completeness, compatibility, and accuracy of EPA's environmental data; (4) EPA's ability to evaluate the outcomes of its programs in terms of changes in the environment is limited by gaps and inconsistencies in the quality of its data; (5) of the 357 measures of performance that EPA has developed for use during fiscal year 2000 to report its accomplishments under the Results Act, the agency reports that only 71 will reflect environmental outcomes; the other measures will reflect program activities, such as the number of actions taken to enforce environmental laws; (6) EPA program managers acknowledge that additional measures of environmental outcomes are needed and that the agency's forthcoming information plan will encourage such measures in all program offices and establish milestones for creating them; (7) to meet these milestones, EPA's program offices will have to overcome: (a) difficulties in establishing cause-and-effect relationships between program activities and environmental outcomes; (b) a lack of reliable baseline data against which to measure progress and a more generalized lack of reliable data about the environment; and (c) constraints on the resources for gathering and analyzing the data; (8) creating a successful central information office from disparate parts of EPA will help the agency to address obstacles to obtaining the data it needs to manage for results; (9) however, establishing a successful office will require appropriate resources and the commitment of senior management; and (10) one of the office's most pressing challenges will be to develop a plan that identifies clear priorities for the office and the resources it will need to successfully lead the agency's efforts to make significant improvements in information management.


Our recommendations from this work are listed below with a Contact for more information. Status will change from "In process" to "Open," "Closed - implemented," or "Closed - not implemented" based on our follow up work.

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