GAO Recommends USDA Set Performance Goals and Improve Fraud Risk Management for Funding Program  
Friday, December 09, 2022 | Comments

A significant gap in broadband access remains between U.S. urban and rural populations, according to the FCC. The importance of closing the gap was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has required many Americans to work, learn and socialize from home. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA’s) ReConnect program, which began in 2018, provides grants and loans to broadband providers serving rural communities to help close the broadband gap. 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review the ReConnect program. Among other objectives, the report examines the program's performance goals and alignment with selected leading fraud risk management practices. 

GAO analyzed ReConnect award and application data from 2018 through 2021 and compared USDA's performance documentation to leading performance assessment practices. GAO also compared USDA's fraud risk management processes to GAO's fraud risk framework and interviewed USDA officials. In 2019 and 2020, USDA conducted two rounds of funding in which applicants were able to apply for a grant, a loan, or a combination of the two. As of October 2022, USDA was reviewing applications for a third round of awards.  

USDA uses information from ReConnect and its other broadband programs to inform agencywide performance goals but has not set performance goals specific to ReConnect. For example, during the first two funding rounds, USDA used ReConnect data to support two departmentwide performance goals — one on the number of new subscribers resulting from projects funded by ReConnect and other USDA telecommunications programs, and one on private investment resulting from certain USDA-funded projects.  

However, USDA did not establish performance goals that would define the specific results it expected ReConnect to achieve. Setting performance goals would help the department better determine if ReConnect is meeting expectations distinct from its other programs. Based on that information, it could then make informed decisions about the program. 

GAO Findings 

USDA's oversight of ReConnect aligns with some but not all of the selected leading practices in GAO's fraud risk framework. The framework calls for: (1) designating an entity to oversee fraud risk management activities for a program, (2) documenting that entity's responsibilities, and (3) conducting and documenting a fraud risk assessment for a program, among other practices. USDA officials told GAO that its Office of the Chief Risk Officer is the designated entity to oversee fraud risk management for ReConnect. However, USDA officials have not documented this office's responsibilities specifically for fraud risk management. In addition, USDA officials have identified and considered specific fraud risks in ReConnect, but they have not conducted a fraud risk assessment for the program. Documenting the Office of the Chief Risk Officer's responsibilities for fraud risk management and conducting a fraud risk assessment would help USDA ensure that it routinely identifies and mitigates all potential fraud risks to the Reconnect program. 

GAO is making three recommendations to USDA on ReConnect: (1) establish performance goals, (2) document the designated entity's responsibilities for overseeing fraud risk management activities, and (3) conduct and document a fraud risk assessment. 

USDA agreed with these recommendations. 

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