USDA should also take steps to reduce improper payments, improver its oversight of federal assistance programs and improve IT and cybersecurity, GAO noted in its annual review of “high risk” recommendations to help the federal government save money and improve government operations.
The review acknowledged that USDA is more aggressively tackling GAO recommendations, increasing implementation by 11% from last year and 40% from the prior year, including implementing six of GAO’s 13 open priority recommendations since June 2022, such as a developing an interagency agreement to oversee cell-cultured meat and improving oversight of workplace safety and health concerns and meat and poultry plants.
But, it also identified five new recommendations – bringing the total number of open priority recommendations to 12
Managing federal fiscal exposure to climate risks
New to the list this year is a recommendation that USDA enhance the resilience of agricultural producers in areas where climate change threatens to negatively impact crop and livestock production.
In a report published in January, GAO notes that Congress has appropriated more than $15b in agriculture disaster relief in recent years and extreme whether events were associated with $136.6b liability payments under the federal crop insurance program in 2021.
“Enhancing climate resilience – acting to reduce potential losses by planning for climate hazards – can help manage risks,” GAO explained in the January report. It also outlined 13 option to enhance producers climate resilience including collecting data on climate resilience practices, expanding technical assistance to promote climate resilience, expanding USDA’s Climate Hubs, establishing standards for climate-resilient agricultural operations, potentially incorporating climate resilience into crop insurance rates, offering crop insurance premium subsidies for climate-resilient operations and more.
USDA agreed to incorporate these and other options it has identified into its fiscal year 2023 Action Plan for Climate Adaptation and Resilience.
Improving oversight of federal assistance programs
GAO also outlined several recommendation to improve USDA oversight of Federal Assistance Programs, including establishing processes and quality assurance guidelines for evaluating the Thrifty Food Plan.
In December, GAO recommended USDA develop and document a process to ensure future TFP reevaluations follow project management practices, such as establishing a project charter at the start of the review that includes an overall assessment of the risk and objectives.
These recommendations follow a GAO review called for by Republican leaders in the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry after USDA reviewed and altered the TFP, on which SNAP benefits are based, in 2022. That review led to an increase in food assistance benefits allotted under SNAP by an average for $36.24 per person per month – representing a near 30 percentage point increase over the average pre-pandemic level of $121.
USDA disagreed with GAO’s selection and application of project management and economic analysis standards, although GAO holds firm in its decision. As such, the watchdog says it will continue to assess USDA’s to implement these priority recommendations.
Also under the category of improving oversight of federal assistance programs, GAO reiterated as a high risk priority a recommendation made in 2017 to adjust the operating expense subsidy calculation method for crop insurance premiums caused by changes in crop prices and other factors.
Reducing improper payments and boosting IT and cybersecurity
GAO also reiterated high risk priorities previously identified, including three recommendations to improve oversight of supplemental farm assistance to identify improper payments, and five recommendations to reduce cybersecurity risks and IT duplication and overlap.