GAO foresees IT repercussions from closing Special Trustee Office

GAO report the Interior Department’s Office of the Special Trustee (.pdf)

Accused almost 13 years ago of mismanaging land assets belonging to Native Americans, the Interior Department set up the Office of the Special Trustee (OST) for American Indians to make sweeping changes.

Now that office is due to shut its doors forever – a move that has major implications for many ongoing information technology initiatives, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

For example, Interior lacks a plan for handing off data quality and integrity efforts tied to a major trust management and accounting system OST has put in place, GAO said in a report released Jan. 8.

Interior and GAO agree that OST has accomplished many of the key trust fund management improvements prescribed by the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994. Further, both say it is time for Interior to commit to a deadline for wrapping up remaining activities and closing the office.

The department also needs to let Congress know how much it will cost to keep some of OST’s current activities going, GAO said. The office’s 2006 operating budget was $228 million, and it has a staff of about 590.

In the report, GAO cited earlier Interior projections that all trust fund management reforms would likely be in place by November. However, the watchdog agency then listed several examples of tasks unlikely to meet this deadline.

Chief among the OST activities that will probably drag well past November are ongoing data quality and integrity tasks associated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS).

OST worked with the bureau to put TAAMS in place, and is in the middle of an extensive validation effort designed to ensure that leasing information is correct about Indian-owned lands that bear recurring income.

“OST officials noted that the [data quality and integrity] project is labor intensive,” the report states. Interior officials have estimated that validation activities will continue until December 2009.

Also, BIA and OST are still working to integrate TAAMS with the Trust Funds Accounting System, a modified version of a commercial trust fund accounting system used for collection, accounting, investing and other basic activities.

Several other IT-related functions started under OST must be provided for in transition plans. These include:
  • Running of the Trust Beneficiary Call Center, established in 2005 to answer questions from Native American beneficiaries and give them access to account information.
  • Management of OST’s Trust Portal, which was completed last May to provide Interior employees with a single point of access to applications needed to manage trust funds.
  • Maintenance of a probate case management and tracking system that replaced spreadsheets and manual records.
  • Continuous re-engineering of business processes, which will require dedicated staff.
  • Possible conversion of land title mapping systems to new technology that incorporates the use of satellite imagery and geographic information systems -- an effort that could spill over to 2010.

Interior agreed that it needs to provide Congress with detailed documents on its specific plans to shut OST and absorb the organization’s responsibilities.

However, Assistant Secretary Thomas Weimer, Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, said the OST efforts are not as close to the finish line as GAO has indicated.

“We estimate that over 50 significant or ‘key’ reforms have taken place and estimate that at the very least, there are many more ‘key’ reforms to accomplish,” Weimer stated in his written response.

Many of those reforms surround IT work yet to be done, Weimer said. “New systems are now being implemented as a result of OST funding and support to the BIA to validate and encode tens of thousands of documents that must be included in the new systems,” he said.

Weimer added that the department can commit only to devising a realistic time table for wrapping up the reforms by the end of fiscal 2007,  and not to actual completion of the work by that time.

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