The Coast Guard has made significant improvements to its acquisition management and workforce policies, but many programs still have significant cost and execution risks, according to a General Accountability Office (GAO) report required by the FY2010 Coast Guard Authorization Act.

The GAO report highlighted numerous improvements the Coast Guard has made during the past year that have strengthened acquisition management capabilities and addressed many GAO concerns.  GAO cited incorporating best practices, aligning independent testing requirements with Department of Homeland Security policies, and revising its Major Systems Acquisition Manual as actions that have achieved positive results.

GAO also reported that the Coast Guard has improved executive oversight of acquisition programs.  By increasing the structured involvement of its Executive Oversight Council, GAO said the Coast Guard has improved its ability to deal with trade-offs and other program decisions in the current constrained resource environment. GAO noted that acquisition program officials now brief the oversight council before milestone decisions and when program risk issues arise.

The report cited progress the Coast Guard has made in reducing the number of acquisition workforce vacancies during the past year.  The vacancy rate has fallen from 20 percent to 13 percent between April and November 2010, as only 119 of 951 billets remained unfilled.  The Coast Guard has used contract support to address some hiring gaps.  GAO has often expressed concern about the potential risks of using contractors to fill workforce shortfalls.  However, the report pointed out that the Coast Guard understands and is addressing these concerns by training staff to identify possible conflicts of interest and issuing guidance on proper oversight of contractors and their work.

These improvements notwithstanding, GAO identified numerous areas where the Coast Guard needs to make further improvements to acquisition management.  For example, while the acquisition workforce vacancy rate has improved overall, some program offices still have staffing problems.  GAO said significant shortages remain in some programs because Coast Guard human capital plans do not adequately identify gaps between mission areas and personnel needs.

The GAO report stated that most major Coast Guard acquisition programs still have significant execution, schedule, and budget risks.  GAO cited a December 2010 Coast Guard report that showed 12 of 17 major programs facing moderate to significant risk in execution metrics and schedule problems were reported in 10 of 12  programs with approved baselines.  GAO also pointed out that that same Coast Guard report said 12 of 17 programs faced budgeting and funding risks.  The GAO report stated the Coast Guard’s reliance on unrealistic and unsustainable funding levels in its budget planning worsens these problems.  Achieving lower actual funding levels than planned exacerbates schedule and cost growth problems and undermines future planning, GAO said.

GAO encouraged the Coast Guard to continue to improve its acquisition management capabilities and to make adjustments and changes warranted by program performance.  The report also urged the Coast Guard to seek more opportunities to leverage DoD support to better manage risks and utilize scarce resources.