Environmental Protection

Status of EPA's Efforts to Create a Central Information Office Gao ID: T-RCED-99-177 April 29, 1999

This testimony provides GAO's preliminary observations on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) information management initiatives, which are intended to address long-standing concerns about the accuracy and completeness of the agency's environmental data, the fragmentation of the data across many incompatible databases, and the need for better measures of program outcomes and environmental quality. GAO discusses (1) the status of EPA's efforts to create a central office responsible for information management, policy, and technology issues and (2) the major challenges that the new office needs to address in order to successfully collect, use, and disseminate environmental information.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA estimates that its central information office will be operational by the end of August 1999 and will have a staff of about 350 employees; (2) the office will address a broad range of information policy and technology issues, such as improving the accuracy of EPA's data, protecting the security of information that EPA disseminates over the Internet, developing better measures to assess environmental conditions, and reducing information collection and reporting burdens; (3) EPA recognizes the importance of developing an information plan showing the goals of the new office and the means by which they will be achieved but has not yet established milestones or target dates for completing such a plan; (4) although EPA has made progress in determining the organizational structure for the new office, it has not yet finalized decisions on the office's authorities, responsibilities, and budgetary needs; (5) the agency has not performed an analysis to determine the types and the skills of employees that will be needed to carry out the office's functions; (6) EPA officials told GAO that decisions on the office's authorities, responsibilities, budget, and staff will be made before the office is established in August 1999; (7) on the basis of GAO's prior and ongoing reviews of EPA's information management problems, GAO believes that the success of the new office depends on the agency's addressing several key challenges as it develops an information plan, budget, and organizational structure for that office; and (8) most importantly, EPA needs to: (a) provide the office with the resources and the expertise necessary to solve the complex information management, policy, and technology problems facing the agency; (b) empower the office to overcome organizational challenges to adopting agencywide information policies and procedures; (c) balance the agency's need for data on health, the environment, and program outcomes with the call from the states and regulated industries to reduce their reporting burdens; and (d) work closely with its state partners to design and implement improved information management systems.

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